Media, Representation, and Film Analysis: Exploring Themes Related to the Film District 9
The film ‘District 9’ captures how the construction of identity forms the basis for othering in a society where perceived physical, mental, and psychological differences are established between the majority and a minority group, resulting in the exclusion of the latter based on often untrue stereotypes propagated by the former. In the film, inequality is portrayed as a direct consequence of social stratification, a permanent fixture in all societies. This research paper aims to discuss themes portrayed in the film ‘District 9’ critically. More specifically, the study will explore the themes of identity construction, racism, xenophobia, and inequality that arise from the construction of ‘otherness’ in the South African context. Towards this end, the essay will rely on empirical evidence from literature and the film to provide a pragmatic basis for the premises as well as conclusions.
South Africa’s history of apartheid regime has played a significant role in xenophobic tendencies witnessed in the country in recent years. This is captured in the film ‘District 9’ where South Africans encounter alien life. An investigative team finds over a million aliens who are malnourished and seemingly diseased. The aliens receive help from the locals, but tensions rise when South Africans feel the foreigners have overstayed their welcome. Over time, the aliens are treated with suspicion as well as perceived as ‘subhuman’ by locals, resulting in their segregation and internment in a camp known as District 9. This is a nod to the white-only intercity residential area within Cape Town. Their relocation camp turns into a slum, and the locals disseminate stereotypes that the aliens are ignorant and filthy lawbreakers who leech off of humanity (Janks & Adegoke, 18). Finally, the government decides to move the alien camp to another location outside the township where they can be far from public view after a series of violent confrontations between the two races. During the eviction, one of the humans is exposed to alien technology that transforms him into a prawn. The themes of oppression, racism, and xenophobia come to the fore as the film progresses and the locals increasingly show hostility to the new life form.
The derogatory term ‘Prawn’ is prominently used in the film as a label for constructing the identity of ‘others’ where foreigners or strangers are seen as outsiders and often excluded socially, politically, and economically. The film captures identity construction as the crux of othering in society. In essence, prawn is a racist term meant to capture the undesirable qualities of the new form of life and make them appear less dignified to justify any unwarranted hostility (Wagner, 19). The implications of this are segregation, oppression, and targeted violence aimed at the aliens. Society tends to view minorities in disdain and perceive them as promoting criminal activity or sexual indecency. The term prawn is not different from the label of ‘niggers’ or ‘coons’ in the US to describe black Americans during the slave trade or the Jim Crow regime. This was done to create the perception that blacks are sub-human. In the same way as black Americans and South Africans were subjugated and oppressed by Europeans, the aliens eventually find themselves prisoners after being welcomed so hospitably.
The stereotype labels and perceptions placed on the aliens are also reminiscent of the portrayal of black Americans in popular films as promiscuous, kleptomaniac, lazy, and uncooperative (Falkof, 117). This stereotype results to labeling of aliens as ‘prawns.’ As such, it leads to the creation of ‘otherness’ that connotes the existential tension often present between black and white races in South Africa as well as America.
The film also critiques xenophobia as well as privatized violence. From the commentary in the initial parts of the film, xenophobic attitudes towards alien life are evident. The alien population is similarly evicted from townships to the ejection of coloreds in South Africa or the present xenophobia shown by locals towards foreigners (Sassen, 20). Besides, the film also shows the commission of hate crimes directed towards the alien population including shooting and burning their homes. As an answer to this violence, segregation is proposed, but it ends up being a way to escape confronting racial problems. The main antagonist of the film, Koobus Venter, displays xenophobic attitudes towards aliens that can be assumed to be held widely in Johannesburg. Xenophobia and racist tendencies are often spread through propaganda and stereotypes that present the ‘other’ in a negative light (Wagner, 45). At the beginning of the film, the audience is shown numerous forms of propaganda justifying segregationist/racist policies. Propaganda is used to spread stereotypes against a minority group of individuals and manipulate public opinion (Massey, 13). The aliens are given the name prawn to denote their low rank and undesired appearance. This mirrors other forms of xenophobic oppression as shown by the treatment of immigrants such as Mexicans and other people of color in Western countries such as the USA.
‘District 9’ also provides a commentary on the post-colonial identity, which is perceived as an interplay of diverse factors including but not limited to nationality, race, and gender (Solomon & Kosaka, 15). These factors influence the construction of the identity of the ‘other’ and the subsequent segregation as well as subjugation of aliens. In apartheid South Africa, the white minority constructed the identity of the others known as coloreds and treated them as subhuman. Not only were they dispossessed of the ancestral land, but they were also segregated against and oppressed in numerous ways. The implication of this was the construction of a post-colonial identity among South Africans where foreigners are viewed with suspicion and often face the risk of targeted violence (Janks & Adegoke). The xenophobia witnessed in present-day South Africa is a direct reaction to the identities propagated by the colonial government (Janks & Adegoke, 21).
The film captures the nature of human beings to feel inadequate or threatened by a foreigner. In the same way, South Africans felt suspicious and hostile towards an alien race; they also have the same misgivings about other human beings who differ in terms of race and nationality. This is also similar to the case of the US who perceive African Americans as the ‘other,’ an identity often associated with looting, violence, gang behavior, and sickness.
The role of equality in promoting the construction of the identity of the other is also captured well in the film. Social stratification is perceived as the driver of all inequality in society (Jensen, 18). This is exemplified by the film where aliens who have no social, economic, and political power are discriminated against, oppressed, and treated with less dignity. Their social position ascribed by society relegates them to the very bottom of society where they seemingly have no rights at all. This also mirrors the situation for Africans in colonial South Africa and African Americans in the US. During the colonial period, the coloreds and Africans were treated as subhuman due to an established social ladder that placed Europeans above other races. In the US, African Americans have remained among the lowest in the social ladder due to the absence of economic and socio-political power – a direct consequence of slavery and institutionalized racism, leading to their oppression. The creation and perpetuation of the other propagate and entrenche categorical social inequality (Jimoh, 13). Through exploitation and opportunity hoarding, the majority or ruling class is able to undermine the other’s development by expropriating resources utilized and produced by the minority group as well as using policy to limit access to opportunity.
In conclusion, the film ‘District 9’ provides a critical commentary on the construction of post-colonial identity in South Africa that addresses themes including racism, xenophobia, and inequality in the local context. The reaction of local South Africans towards aliens mirrors the existing xenophobic attitudes present in modern-day South Africa. Locals often develop negative attitudes stoked by propaganda, which creates stereotypes, leading to the social exclusion of minorities. Besides, the film also addresses the theme of racism, especially in the context of colonial South Africa where Africans were treated as subhuman, oppressed, and segregated against by the apartheid regime. Moreover, social stratification is also portrayed as the main contributor to the perpetuation and entrenchment of social inequality that leads to othering and other types of discrimination.