District 9 and the Creation of the Alien
By Dr. Brian Bantum
Assistant Professor of Theology
Seattle Pacific University
District 9 was undoubtedly a terrific movie. It’s plot was original and the story unfolded in both exciting and moving ways. I was enthralled from beginning to end. But something is just not sitting right. I get that the film depicts how societies refuse others and collectively ghettoize and render alien citizens who are different.
I get the whole “if you were in the shoes of the other person you might understand yourself a little better thing.”
But there is something that is keeping me from being really, really, really excited about this movie and the statements it could make about national belonging and otherness.
While the allegorical connection to the movie began with Johannesburg, the fact that these aliens really are aliens and not the people of the land raises a crucial difference in how the conception of difference functions within the movie itself. These creatures literally dropped from the sky. Of course there is going to be societal refusal. The condition the aliens would eventually be left to does well to visualize the practice of differentiation, but in many ways it clouds the processes of formation that creates differences. It is these processes of differentiation that create the spaces of the ghetto, the districts, the internment camps, etc. On the one hand the obvious difference of the aliens creates a helpful visualization of how difference is refused, but it confuses the reality of how difference is created.
The question of apartheid is not only the question of the camps, but of the creation of the conditions that would allow difference to be seen. It is a question of how those on the outside were deemed “natural” citizens. The fact that these aliens are SO different seems to play into the characterizations of difference that create these spaces in the first place. Sure, in many ways the director was trying to ask us the question, “who is really human?” But they so confused the point through a (correctly) muddled view of good/bad within each society that the only marker left was the visual to demarcate the citizen/alien.
It’s along this line that I am really not sure about this movie. The possibility of rendering a people who inhabit a land into aliens is the real miracle of the colonial project and that is the sin we have to reckon with. That we treat others who are different than us badly is obvious at this point. Sadly, the evidence is mounting exponentially. But the response to this must be more nuanced than simple decisions to stop doing it.
District 9 confronts us with the treatment of aliens and not the creation of aliens (or the creation of citizens.) I know movies aren’t supposed to be everything. I am thankful for a thoroughly thought-provoking film. At the same time I am always fearful of the ways such thought-provoking moments can problematically frame our view of the challenges before us.
Dr. Brain Bantum is Assistant Professor of Theology at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington. He received his Ph.D. and Master of Theological Studies from Duke University. His first book Mulatto Theology will be published by Baylor University Press. For more thoughts and theology from Brian Bantum, check out his personal blog: http://brianbantum.wordpress.org