Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inkhat Finally Gets it Over With And Reviews District 9!

There are spoilers. If you don’t want to read me rant, skip this one, dear readers.

A lot of things happened this week. Many of them were good. Most of them involved people I was very happy to see. A small portion involved watching Avatar and The Great Mouse Detective with my new grad school friends, because that is very adult and sophisticated. Honestly, I find myself going back to the animated movies I loved when I was younger often. It’s interesting to see how much I missed when I was younger. I wonder that I ever understood what was happening; that there were actually nuances at work. This makes me very very excited.

You have to understand a little bit about how a English Major’s mind works, or at least, how it functions if operating properly and switched on. I cannot stop analyzing language, stories, symbolism, etc. The fact that I minored (a class and a half away from double majored) in art history means that I am literally doing this constantly. All. The. Goddam. Time. That Bob Evan’s sigh? That Champion Car Wash commercial? That encouraging billboard? I am already tearing it apart. If you’re lucky, I’ll keep my mouth shut. I can turn it off sometimes, if I talk myself through it. For instance, I turned it off for GI Joe, and had a great deal of fun with it. Don’t tell me it didn’t follow the ‘feel’ of GI Joe. Go watch the old movies again. There’s an example of something not as nuanced as I thought back then.

I did not turn it off for District 9, not knowing what to expect. I walked out of the theater thinking, more or less, “Well, that was a terrible movie. I would rather like my money back. Well, it’ll bomb out in a few days.”

But it didn’t. No! Worse than that, people flocked to it. Not the first time a large group of people saw a terrible movie. I was over it, but then I read the reviews. Apparently people found it moving, inspirational, a treatise on humanity. “What?” I said to myself. “In that mess of a movie? And on top of that, did anyone miss the racism? The massive, terrible racist overtones? No, not overtones so much as an enormous neon sign that said, ‘STERYOTYPE AHOY’.” Oh no. actually, they caught those, and defended them. Apparently the director, being from Africa, is exempt from racism. More than that, it’s creative. Apparently.

It bothered me. A little. I’ve ranted about it to anyone who will listen…or who won’t listen but will nod as if they are. I’ve lost sleep. I’ve lay awake at night and thought, “Why? Why does it bother me so much?” So, after that enormous introduction, here is why. No seriously, you don’t have to read this if you don’t want to.

I was going to pick apart plot holes and shallow characters, but let’s let that be. That is simply what makes this movie a bad movie, and not what makes it actively insulting. No, let’s talk just about that. Let’s talk about the Nigerians. Now, the fact that they are the Nigerians is important. They are not the “So and So Gang,” or a group of Nigerians, or anything like that. No. They are The Nigerians. If a movie used The Americans, we would assume that would be a group representing, in some small part, America. So, let’s look at how these Nigerians are portrayed. They are violent, involved in interspecies prostitution, and, my personal favorite, cannibalistic. Oh no, it’s okay. There’s a reason. It’s Voodoo. So, not only has the director insulted a culture, but also a religion.

Fun fact, Voodoo, actually comes from a word meaning, basically, ‘things which do things’. It involves the release of energy from a powerful object by putting a nail or piece of metal into it. It’s usually used to seal promises, very much like swearing on a bible. It actually originates from slaves in the Caribbean via the Congo. That is not, in fact, Nigeria. Oh also, it doesn’t involve cannibalism. Plus 10 points for style but minus several billion for sloppy writing, am I right?

Is it racist to assume that one of group of people believe and practice the same thing as another simply because they live in the same area and may look alike Yes. I think that’s the definition. Right there.

But culture is hard. It is difficult to fabricate complex characters in a system they inherited through birth, especially, in the case of a sci fi, when you have to invent one. This movie proves this. In the same way that the newest Star Wars movies co-opted a great deal of African Art to fill in the background, this movie used stereotypes in the place of plot and characters. The villains were white and Euro-American. The female lead was white, blonde, and in distress. Johannesburg was basically a blank slate, where people were devoid of all personality or expression save anger. The aliens were completely cultureless. They are aggressive, stupid, and violent, save Christopher.

I was aware, vaguely, that I was supposed to see Christopher as the undoing of this stereotype. However, I found it difficult as he was the only character shown in that way. Even in the last scene, when Wikkas is rescued, the aliens are savage and frightening. Even when Christopher speaks of them, they are ‘his people,’ a group of nameless stand ins for the downtrodden of the world. I understand, also, that we were supposed to be aware of a bias because of the documentary style. However, the style was dropped so often, that excuse is no longer valid.

This was presented as a movie about the escalation of violence resulting from cultural tension, and there was no culture. There was only violence. Violence as reason, plot point, and solution. It was also a film about humanity; about equal treatment and understanding. Yet the director saw fit to slander and insult vast swatches of the real world.

The sin of this movie is not that it was vapid, or silly, or full of explosions. The offense is in the lie of it. It presented itself as something intelligent and introspective; a real commentary on humanity. And it was, but probably not in the way everyone believes. It showed exactly what humanity will swallow, enthusiastically, so long as it follows our own view of the world.

This movies asks you to think, gives you an hour of swill, and allows you to leave the movie thinking you have. Yet, it’s still full of all the flash and emptiness of any Hollywood blockbuster. You were tricked. You were bamboozled. I know you were aware of it too. Most people have told me those scenes make them feel uncomfortable. There’s a reason, people! Don’t ignore that feeling! You like the thinking feeling! Now keep doing it!


  1. I was put off by the representation of the Nigerian gang as well, until they showed us the labs where aliens were being dissected and shot mercilessly "for science." The two types of violence seemed very synonymous to me.

    They were identified as Nigerians not to represent Nigeria as a whole, but because Nigeria is a long way from South Africa; think Russian Mafia in New Jersey. Likely, given a local context, they would still be called "The Russians," despite the fact that they do not represent Russia as a whole. Admittedly that can snowball into generalizations, and I'm sure there are idiots out there who have never seen a map and/or think all black Africans are witch doctors. But I don't think it was the filmmakers' intent to mislead people that way, and there were a few black faces on the MNU side of things, and entire crowds of people with dark skin. Besides which, Voodoo didn't just come from one modern African country to the Caribbean; similar practices come from (or at least spread to) a large portion of West Africa, Nigeria included.

    But I'm genuinely concerned that you have a problem with the lack of culture on the part of the aliens. That's the entire point of the movie, how ugly and cruel it was that the humans forced their way into the aliens' ship, pulled them into the human world, and then reduced them to animals because they were afraid of what they didn't know about the aliens. Which is almost exactly what happened in South Africa (and many, many other places worldwide, including the US), and what made me feel uncomfortable or sick to think about while watching it: colonials moved into an area, then reduced the natives to animals so they could justify their violence toward them. Isn't that completely stupid, to let fear rule you like that? Yet don't we all do it, on some level?

    The movie got you thinking and talking about race, so it succeeded. You don't have to like the movie, but you have to admit that they acheived their desired result. And isn't that the mark of a well-made film?

    (This is JoAnna, btw.)

  2. That is true. Voodoo came from a lot of countries influences. However, it still refers to the specific religion, born in the Caribbean from slaves who were cut off from the religions of their homeland. All this, of course, is purely academic. It is still nothing like what was portrayed in the movie.

    I think you're right about open dialogue being needed from, and even an important produce of, this movie, yet I still have trouble with a movie which seems to chastise misunderstandings through ignorance, yet disrespects an existing culture and religion.

  3. The core problem I think District 9 suffered from was too many forces pulling it in different directions, with the natural consequences being that A. parts of it were far more effective than others, and B. some of its components actively worked against one another. This post sets the precedent of ignoring a lot of the bits that jumped out at me as being awkward or contradictory, like the detestably cardboard cutout villains and some of the more inexplicable action scenes, so I will as well. This unfortunately means I can't talk at length about the very compelling sense of tension I felt building during the first 15 minutes (when the film really stuck with the documentary style) or how neat the effects and camerawork could be at times (I liked how the huge alien ship was almost never fully in frame, and the movie's strongest moments for me were the parts where it felt legitimately cobbled together from on-site recorders and security cameras,) or how the harder sci-fi aspects of it like the genuinely foreign and incomprehensible aliens were absolutely fascinating when they weren't getting dragged down by stuff like Christopher's kid making puppy-dog eyes. But such is life.

    JoAnna raised some good points above about simplified identity by way of distance. The practice is visible all over the place, from "the Russians" identifying a gangster mob to "the Japanese" referring specifically to a business competitor to even, yes, "the Americans" singling out a ruthless corporation or a group of obnoxious tourists or whatever particular emmissary of their home nation is being discussed. If anything, it's usually to distinguish them from other similar groups; "the weapons dealers" or "the gangsters" might not cut it if there's a half-dozen small-time operations it could apply to and you really only care about the big one that has no other particular unique name but happens to have originated from a different nation. Is it racist? It's leaning in the wrong direction, that's for sure, and I've known a couple of Russian people to complain about the bad rap they tend to get in movies. It didn't strike me as the most egregious error in the movie, but in all honest I might simply have missed it - had you asked me after the movie finished who the weapons dealers were, I wouldn't have been able to tell you they were called "the Nigerians" or even that they were, in fact, from Nigeria.

    Aside from that, though, I'll agree that the voodoo bits felt awry right from the start. Nigeria is indeed home to people who believe in voodoo, as you can find out from the rather dismal articles about human trafficking and superstitious coercion that result from a "nigeria voodoo" search on Google, but the cannibalistic elements felt over-the-top (I don't know much about voodoo, but that was certainly not on my short list of facts.) It felt to me like it was in the same vein as the grim, stone-cold corporate executives - an overplayed exaggeration at the very least, something that dragged me out of the believability of the movie's world and back into Simple Plot With Explosions land. I didn't pay it much further heed because it just got tossed into the basket with all of the other Movie Shortcuts that were pulling it away from the film it looked like it was going to be at the start.

    I think the movie's racism is much along the same lines as the accusations leveled against Resident Evil 5; it's not apparent that it's out of malice so much as out of not thinking things through, of picking a few iconic and simple images and neither delving in deep enough to give them authenticity, nor stepping back far enough to see the implied baggage that comes with them.

    There's other things I can think of, like how Christopher really dragged the movie down for me and how the movie was waaay too obsessed with showing us guys exploding, but they're not really germane to the point right now, I think.

  4. I completely agree that there were some good things done with the movie stylistically. It seemed to come so close sometimes...I really wanted to like it. And I really love cinema verite. I was really hoping they would stick with it the entire time.

    I agree that this does not make the filmmaker evil, but is simply the result of an inexperienced director and writer. The broad strokes were all there, but they somehow missed the subtle detail work.

    Also, you're right! I found the article in the New York Times. Seems like a lot of human trafficking in multiple countries around the world was linked to threats of Voodoo. What an unfortunate example. I wonder if that is where he got his inspiration. I suppose the question becomes then, if it is based on these stories, what is the social responsibility of the filmmaker, since Voodoo is already a highly stereotyped religion and his movie focuses on understanding? I'm not sure I have an answer for that.