While the science fiction flick, District 9, and its South African-born director, Neill Blomkamp, are being touted as possible Oscar nominees, the film's fatal flaw demands our critical analysis. Hollywood might overlook the film's racism, but we cannot. For example, the film unduly picks on Nigerians as violent gangsters, bloodthirsty cannibals, murderous arms dealers and prostitutes who trade in inter-species sex.
Hollywood's fascination with Africa is not new. As far back as King Solomon's Mines and Tarzan, the entertainment industry has used Africa as a backdrop to tell its stories, often with unfortunate consequences for Africa and Africans. Over the last decade, however, cinematic engagement with Africa has not only intensified, it has also become more sophisticated, if still fairly predictable. Like the Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamond, and The Constant Gardener, many of these more recent films still revolve around white protagonists, but they are not always about "great white heroes". A few films, including Tsotsi and Catch a Fire, even manage to tell an African story from an African perspective.
With the arrival of District 9 (D9), Africa has now made its entry into the genre of science fiction. Indeed its mix of equal parts sci-fi, faux documentary, and action-thriller has made D9 an unexpected critical success and hit at the box office. Beneath all of the fancy dressing, however, D9 purports to be a social commentary on the banality of prejudice.
Neill Blomkamp, the movie's South African-born director, draws on his country's troubled apartheid and post-apartheid history to address the interrelated issues of xenophobia, segregation, poverty, displacement, and the abuse of state power. Yet in fundamental and irreparable ways, D9 undermines its own possible best intentions in its presentation of these pressing issues. The emphasis is on "possible" best intentions because I am not convinced that Blomkamp really had a progressive agenda at heart in making D9. If he did something terrible happened along the way.
I believe wholeheartedly that when moments in our shared popular culture provide us with opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations about how we understand Africa, we can't afford not to seize them. This is especially the case with D9 because it is the "Africa film" everyone is talking about and the evidence suggests that most Western moviegoers are leaving the movie excited about what...