District 9



“District 9,” a small science-fiction film from South Africa, has against all conventions of the film business, become the box-office leader in, of all places, the United States.  “District 9” is about an alien space-ship that has come to rest over downtown Johannesburg, and its starving insect-like inhabitants have been corraled by the South African police and put into District 9, which I have to say is an obvious metaphor for the ways in which black South Africans were put into ghettos during the years of Apartheid.  For some reason, the aliens like to eat cat food, which only enhances the human loathing for them.


The alien creatures are essentially human-sized, but have what appear to be insect mouthparts and claws for hands.  They can leap, and they have weapons that will obliterate humans, but they are a peaceful group and have no animus against humans.  So they go, most of them, into the same kind of shacks that blacks have had in South Africa for a century.  The whites call them ‘prawns,’ because they look like a cross between a shrimp and a lobster.


But all they want is to get back to their mother ship, which in the film we see hanging over Johannesburg.  One white man, Wikus, is in charge of relocating them, until at one point he is bitten by an alien and grows a lobster-like claw on his arm.  The whites – it’s interesting that I said that – the humans, I meant to say, find that his DNA can somehow be transferred to other humans, and then they will be able to fire the aliens’ weapons.  So now the humans are on the hunt for Wikus, to capture him and take his new DNA.


“District 9” is entirely engrossing, for a few reasons:  first for its effects, then for its concept, that these aliens mean us no harm, and finally for its metaphorical attack on the concept of white (and human, for that matter), supremacy.  I hope that its rise to the top of the box-office tables will have a lasting effect on those who see it.