There is a moment in a review of District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) when Joshua Clover anticipates that the film will be ‘a neat allegory of apartheid, with the marooned race of repulsive and sad-sack aliens standing for the dispossessed’ (2009: 8). Similarly, Eric D. Smith suggests that the film ‘at first seem[s] an allegory for the suspension of constitutional law during the officially declared South African State of Emergency in the latter days of apartheid policy (1985-1990)’ (2012: 149). In this essay I want to map District 9’s representation of inter-species hybrids within the complex situation of apartheid-era South African interracial relations and discuss some of the issues surrounding science fiction as allegory. I will consider “race” as being an ideological category and, following Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, a psychological construction that nevertheless has a material existence. I will be posing the question of to what extent District 9 is itself racist.
I got home from Eastbourne on Friday to find a package that I took to be some medium-awaited DVDs but was in fact a copy of Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl, Graeme Stout (eds) (2015) Alien Imaginations Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism (London: Bloomsbury). I have a chapter in it called “Human Subjects/Alien Objects? Abjection and the Constructions of Race and Racism in District 9“, which began from the sense that there was something racist at the heart of District 9 — the dangers of using aliens as metaphors for racial difference, made more problematic by the representation (with subtitles) of Nigerians. There’s an interesting couple of paragraphs in Adilifu Nama’s Black Space when he argues:
At its best, SF cinema is an allegorical site that invites the audience to safely examine and reflect on long-standing social issues in an unfamiliar setting, providing the possibility of viewing them in a new light.
At its worst, the process of allegorical displacement invites audiences to affirm racist ideas, confirm racial fears, and reinforce dubious generalizations about race […] without employing overt racial language or explicit imagery.
It’s a dangerous ploy. The episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Angel One” (25 January 1988)) that used gender to explore Apartheid is a case in point. Ouchy.
There was a point in writing this chapter where I hit a wall and needed something more — I confess to reading the chapter on race in Adam Roberts’s Science Fiction (2000) and the light dawned. I typed a keyword into the library catalogue and two articles on District 9 were the top results. I swear they had not been visible before. From there, thankfully, it flowed.
Oddly enough, on the train journey to and from Eastbourne I read Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014), which is, among other things, a response to District 9 from a Nigerian perspective. I shan’t blog about the novel for now, but I know I will come back to it. Another chapter in the collection, I think Bianca Westermann’s “Meeting the Other: Cyborgs, Aliens & Beyond”, also discusses District 9 and comes to different conclusions, so I will be very interested to read that.