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Science fiction and the strange racial dynamics of District 9

Graham F. Scott

When I first saw the original two-minute teaser trailer, above, for District 9, the new science-fiction movie coming out in August, it was a few months ago and the huge, out-of-control advertising campaign promoting it hadn’t yet blanketed every bus-stop and billboard in the country. Though the subsequent advertising has dulled my interest a bit, I was intrigued at the time—and not just because I’m a huge geek for flying saucers-and-aliens movies.

There are two significant things to note about District 9. First, the hypermodern you-are-there visual style, clearly influenced by CNN, reality TV, embedded reporting, and the other techniques that have characterized the “War on Terror” aesthetic. This same kind of shaky camera work, complete with documentary-style zoom lenses, harsh lighting, and choppy focus-pulling, was the hallmark of another recent grim science-fiction series and clear 9/11 fable, Battlestar Galactica.

The second and more important thing about this movie is its setting and context, in Johannesburg, South Africa. The director, Neill Blomkamp, has adapted this feature from a short film he made, Alive in Joburg, about alien refugees living in deplorable conditions in refugee camps and shantytowns around South Africa’s largest city. The racial overtones at work here are pretty obvious (science fiction has been making hay out of racial metaphors since the beginning) but the specific location here—post-apartheid South Africa; a continent struggling to cope with massive flows of migrants, within and across borders; booming exurban slums—is particularly contemporary. (Klaatu and Gort clambering out of their spaceship onto the White House lawn this ain’t.) In the original short film, there’s an explicit political connection to the apartheid government and the racial divides that defined the country for decades. Can that message survive the transition to a mainstream feature co-financed by Sony/Tristar? Even if the overt political message is diluted, there’s still an implicit one in setting this story in Johannesburg, away from obvious trappings of Western political, economic, cultural and military domination. In a culture where non-westerners are usually depicted as either helpless, expendable, irrelevant, villainous, or hopelessly sentimentalized, this flips the perspective and makes them the centre of the action. That’s not an insignificant achievement for a big Hollywood science-fiction movie.

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