Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Trouble in District 9

New York Press critic Armond White is lambasted every week for this or that offense to film criticism. I rolled my eyes not long ago when White, who praised The Hurt Locker, immediately took it back, calling the movie "severely overrated"--just because a majority of critics happened to applaud it, too. So very juvenile.

But he has a point about District 9, in a negative review that outraged fanboys (out for blood again after their persecution of Dark Knight heretics like myself last summer). Cleverly concocted by South African-born filmmaker Neill Blomkamp and screenwriter Terri Tatchell, the film (which references numerous others but has its own beat) is a set in a Johannesburg-erected shantytown for stranded aliens and the apartheid-like friction that arises. It seems to start in the 80s, when actual apartheid was stlll in force, which the movie doesn't really deal with. Apparently, hatred with the alien "prawn" trumps the real-life racial divide.

That was one sticking point. But what bothered me was the use of Nigerians as the film's whipping boys. The Nigerian characters, who live among the prawn, exploit them mercilessly, even eating them to gain their unearthly powers. Granted that Nigerians don't have the best rep in the world, particularly among anyone who's fallen for a get-rich-quick Internet scheme generated from the country. But I kept waiting for at least one of the Nigerians to show a different, more magnanimous side--which, OK, is an easy way out to excuse the uncharitable portrayals that have come before, one often used to disguise or minimize racism, sexism, and any other "isms" in the movies. But it never comes.

I suppose Blomkamp could be praised for sticking to his guns--maybe he's exaggerating the historical enmity between South Africa and Nigeria for effect. But it negates the movie's premise of tolerance. It makes the prawn the victims of another outcast minority and a few rotten apples in the South African system, as if they and not apartheid itself are the villains. It's questionable, doubly so given the (thin) charges of racism leveled at the film's producer, Peter Jackson. Perhaps it's a case of taking the filmmaker out of South Africa, but not taking the South Africa out of the filmmaker.

There's this to chew on. I'm not satisfied, though. I guess I'll never entirely trust a white South African who says "not me" regarding apartheid to tell me about the "reality" of race and ethnicity in the country. More and more the movie seems to yearn for the good old days of apartheid, which maybe, to hear Blomkamp tell it, weren't so bad as what came after it.

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