Of Prawns and Popular Geopolitics: The Veiled Lessons of District 9

by Robert A. Saunders on January 1st, 2010

Originally published in the Journal Of Global Change and Governance.

District 9, this year’s most politically engaging film, is not set in Washington, Moscow, or Beijing, but in alternative reality Johannesburg that looks surprisingly like the apartheid-era version of the South African city. However, the politics of director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 are not your grandfather’s politics. Instead, we are given a taste of the dark future, with a bitter chaser from the past.

The premise of the film revolves around an attempt to resettle members of an alien species who have been stranded on Earth for 20 years. After their spaceship broke down over 1980s Johannesburg, the euphemistically named Multinational United, a private military company (PMC) cum multinational weapons manufacturer, successfully “rescued” the aliens—who numbered more than one million—from their derelict ship, resettling them in a sprawling ghetto at the edge of the meridional metropolis.

After two decades, the stranded visitors have become a hopeless lot. Derogatively deemed “Prawns” due to the their arthropod characteristics, the aliens evince all the characteristics of an imperially subjugated underclass: they have traded away all their possessions for cat food (which serves as a mild stimulant); they are leaderless; and they have become dependent on the paltry support given them by MNU, which—by the way—is intensely interested in studying their formidable weaponry which is seemingly unusable by humans (the ability to conduct experiments on the aliens and stockpile their technology seems to be MNU’s imperial concession for establishing and supplying District 9).

Filmed in mock documentary style, District 9 follows the efforts of an MNU bureaucrat as he initiates the mass transfer of Prawns to a new site (District 10), which lies some 240 kilometers away from the city. The scene is set with “man on the street” interviews with local (mostly black) South Africans who—ghostly echoing the sentiments frequently expressed by apartheid-era whites about black Africans—condemn the Prawns’ criminality, lax morals, and high birth rates (the population has swelled to more than 2 million since first contact). “Move them out” is the constant refrain.

Interspersed into the narrative are interviews with the relevant “experts”: sociologists and spokespeople for aid agencies who narrate the pathetic contours of human-Prawn coexistence with emotional distance and academic interest. Like those historians of today who are charged with explaining apartheid and, in doing so, must interrogate and ultimately, though involuntarily, validate (at least on a political level) the evil that was. viscerally portrays the dehumanizing effects of the apartheid regime: this is especially true when Wikus encounters the unusually self-confident and articulate Christopher Johnson (the Anglicized Christian and surnames of the aliens is meant to signify the imperial practice of giving black Africans similar names), an alien whom the viewer earlier witnessed collecting a mysterious fluid from scattered bits of alien technology. Christopher ultimately refuses to sign the eviction notice, arguing that he has 24 hours to do so. With this simple act, Christopher proves himself to be one of the few aliens literate in English. Stymied, Wikus immediately changes tactics and threatens to remove Christopher’s son from their home due “unsafe conditions” for the minor. Such tactics are reminiscent of racist “do-gooder” policies which ominously echo the histories of Native Americans, Australian aborigines, and other colonial peoples who had their children ripped away by whites who wanted to “save them” from their parents’ “backward” ways.

Following an accident with the unknown extraterrestrial fluid that Christopher Johnson has been collecting, Wikus begins to “go native”—first literally, and then figuratively. The substance sickens and then steadily transforms Wikus into a Prawn, beginning with his left hand and forearm. This fact is quickly recognized by his father-in-law who seeks to finally harness the power of his vast stores of hitherto useless alien weaponry. Recognizing that he is a nothing more than a guinea pig slated for eventual organ harvesting, Wikus flees the clutches of MNU. His only hope for survival lies in District 9. Before the film turns to the rather pat battle sequences that guaranteed its success with the critical male tween/teen demographic, we are once again reminded both of Apartheid and late 19th century prohibitions on miscegeny when MNU traduces Wikus by announcing that he became infected while having carnal relations with the “Other.” Hounded and abandoned by his own race, Wikus eventually comes to view the Prawns as equals and abandons his own imperial mindset.

While District 9 may be read as a simple allegory for apartheid, watching the film causes one to remember and fret about Max Weber’s definition of the state, i.e., a human community that has a legitimate monopoly on violence within a given territory. By this definition, the state has retreated (or surrendered) in the world of District 9. In the film, there are no parliaments, no presidents, no governors, and no police; in fact, the South African state is absent throughout the entirety of the motion picture. Instead, the main purveyor of power is the multinational private military contractor MNU, which has supplanted the role of the military and relieved the state of the burdens of accountability. As Valerie Spelling points out in Altered States: The Globalization of Accountability (2009), “Even if sensible on the surface, the use of combat PMCs by states presents a significant challenge to the state from a Weberian point of view.” We see this maxim proved true in District 9.

It is interesting to note the dissonance between Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg (2005) and his full-length version, District 9. In Alive in Joburg, the term “government” is used regularly and it is clear that the state is charged with managing the “alien problem” as the extraterrestrials roam from their encampments and riot against the conditions in which they are kept. Just a few years later, however, the director saw fit to erase the state from his narrative altogether. The rapidly dissipating capacity of the state to project its power into all its spaces is laid bare in Blomkamp’s world, one in which the corporate greed and violent non-state actors determine the future (a set of circumstances for anyone familiar with Blackwater’s adventures in Iraq).

Besides MNU, the other pretender to power is the Nigerian militia that maintains internal control of District 9. The head of the gang, Obesandjo, epitomizes that frightening trend in African politics (he exhibits shades of the mystical and maniacal head of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, Joseph Kony) identified so vividly in Robert Kaplan’s 1994 Atlantic article “The Coming Anarchy.” Obesandjo is obsessed with the Prawns and believes that by eating Wikus’ xenic arm he will absorb the alien’s power. Such cannibalistic fantasies provide us with a celluloid depiction of Kaplan’s archetypal sub-Saharan African warlord whose authority is “based on irrational spirit power” and “juju” (Nigeria, a paragon of the weak state, banned the film because it portrays the country and people “in a bad light”).

While we may revile Kaplan for his ham-handed—borderline racist—analysis of political trends in the developing world, we must remember that his was a cautionary tale for the entire planet. The generic “Africa” portrayed in “The Coming Anarchy” mirrors the one we have seen mass-mediated in films such as Tears of the Sun (2003), The Constant Gardener (2005), and Blood Diamond
(2006), and for those of us who study global change and governance, this “African” present is prologue for the global future. District 9 just goes a little further in unveiling the post-Westphalian dystopia that we are lurching towards.


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