Analyses of Blomkamp’s District 9 & Abrams’ Star Trek

2009 September 22

-BaoYunCheng

I wrote these analyses immediately following the releases of these two summer blockbuster sci-fi films.

My Analysis of Peter Jackson/Neill Blomkamp’s District 9:

For Humans OnlyDistrict 9 is one of the more entertaining films of our generation. Despite its elaborate critique on systematic racism, though, the movie itself prescribes liberal racism and elitism to overcome the systematic racism.

There are 2 layers of analysis that can be made on District 9. The first is a ‘superficial’ critique on the UN, private contractors, and systematic racism to which the movie metaphorically makes. Because I agree with the movie’s critiques and think they are obvious enough that most other ‘socially conscious’ reviewers will deconstruct, I will only skim through the first layer before tackling my above thesis that District 9 handles itself in a very racist and elitist fashion.

Superficial layer:

1. Critique on Systematic Racism and South African Apartheid
It should be quite obvious that the setting of the film, South Africa, is intentional. The dichotomy between the aliens and humans parallel the apartheid state’s institutional segregation between South African blacks and whites, a system that formally existed from 1948 until 1994, and which exists de facto to this day with the continuation of black shantytowns (much like those depicted in the film as segregated alien communities of run-down shacks). Instead of institutionally racist policies, though, the black shantytowns exist today because of South African capitalism that has favored many white capitalists and a few black corporate barons at the expense of the majority of South African blacks.
The film beautifully captures the subconscious rootedness of racism among humans, with aliens being called ‘prawns’ (which we are told at the outset is a derogatory term) by even the most liberally-minded characters of the film, such as the protagonist Wikus Van De Merwe (similar to whites commonly calling African Americans ‘n*ggers’ throughout most of American history).
Another interesting way racism is made explicit in the film is through the alien’s ‘human’ (but really, ‘white’) name: Christopher Johnson. Although the alien might have an alien name, it is comfortable enough with the name to acknowledge it among friends (i.e. to Wikus near the end of the movie). The real-life parallel to this is the erasure of African names to slaves entering America (something Malcolm detested, and hence, the X in his name).

2. Critique on UN and liberalism (liberal humanitarianism)
Like the UN, humanitarian language is used as a cover the MNU’s actions to forcibly relocate aliens from District 9 to District 10. A small but important point is the authoritarianism and favoritism within UN culture, as Wikus was promoted to lead the MNU’s operations early in the film. This reminded me of the behind the scenes collusion between the G8 (or the power of the Security Council) to manipulate policy in both the UN and orgs like the WTO.

3. Critique on private contractors like Blackwater
MNU was a company large enough to produce and develop weapons and have its only private army. Throughout the film, we see a lot of dirty tactics used by MNU, from medical experimentations of aliens to verbal deception (when Christopher does not want to give consent for his eviction, the MNU agents resort to nonrelated laws of pollution to coerce Christopher into signing the eviction letter).

Deeper Analysis- why District 9 is liberally racist and elitist:

4. Unintended racist portrayal of Nigerians
Admittedly, I’m not clear as to whether or not the Nigerians were intentionally portrayed in a sensationalized manner, but I’d be willing to bet that the writer/director needed some straw man as the gangster type in the film. Because the film had no social context for the looting and gangster tactics by which the Nigerians operated, it reinforces the subconscious racism held by many white liberals that certain people of color (dark-skinned) are more prone to violence and gangsterism. It is this ‘backwardness’ that needs to be rescued by the white missionaries that form the ranks of the Peace Corps and other international humanitarian organizations. Indeed, in the film, the Nigerians and their violent and cultish tendencies are portrayed as negatively as the private soldiers of the MNU. In one of the last fight scenes, viewers are expected to sympathize with Wikus when he faces a violent barrage from both the MNU and the Nigerians.

5. An Elite-Centric View of Liberation: One Man Can Save the World
This is one of the most common themes of Hollywood movies. In short, the film’s solution relies on a hero to save the day. That the hero is white is another problem, which I will examine in point 6. The two protagonists of the film are Wikus and Christopher. I’ll start with the latter, since Wikus will be covered in the next point. Why is it that Christopher is the only smart alien in the whole film (at the first encounter, MNU needs to resort to verbal coercion because Christopher is “sharp” and understands the implication of eviction)? Why does Christopher alone have to be the one to rescue his alien counterparts? Why are all the other aliens, like the Nigerians in the film, portrayed as thieves or criminals? Because the theme of the movie is liberation from oppression, the elitism provides a false and ahistorical illusion by which liberation has been achieved: namely, it counteracts the fact that all historic liberations have been products of popular and democratic movements. Sure, there have been leaders like Malcolm and Gandhi, but that they have been leaders is a testament to which their ideas and messages were reflections of the movement (and the people) as a whole. Again, this is a predominant theme in movies (i.e. the Dark Knight and Harvey Dent save the day!) and reflects the popularity of the Obamamania phenomenon (let’s vote in change!). Until movements are built, though, change cannot be achieved by one or a few leaders alone.

6. The White Man’s Burden: Wikus as the Liberal Racist
In a way, District 9 is very similar to Blood Diamond, Freedom Writers, and Dangerous Minds. It follows the trend in setting a white man as the key to achieving liberation. There is a common sentiment among white liberals that Wikus accurately represents through his actually ‘becoming’ an alien: that whites can go into communities of color (most of the times in the so-called Third World) and eventually experience some type of oppression faced by people of color. That Wikus actually transforms into an alien is the ultimate manifestation of this white fixation/imagination of becoming one of the oppressed. For the record, I do think white people have and will be persecuted for being in struggle with people of color, but I do NOT think white people can ever be a victim of white supremacy simply because, (duh), the color of their skin. The other liberally racist idea Wikus represents is that white folks can simply enter into a community of color and change it for the better. Again, lasting change is a process from below involving movements. White liberal humanitarians, so long as they are detached from the community that they purport to serve, cannot be the key to progressive social change.

———-

My Analysis on JJ Abrams’ Star Trek:

I’ve decided to give a quick analysis on the newest film in the Star Trek franchise. In terms of entertainment, it stands as the second best film in the franchise, only behind The Voyage Home and slightly better than The Wrath of Khan and First Contact. JJ Abrams has also done a commendable job in making one of the most sophisticated and longstanding sci-fi franchises accessible to a newer generation. Some themes I will be covering in my analysis include the liberal imperialism of the Federation, deglorification of manual labor, an elite-centric view of the world, and patriarchy.

1. Liberal imperialism of the Federationnero
This first point is the broadest of them all and not necessarily specific to this particular film, but to the entire Trek franchise. It’s worth pointing out, however, because this film marks the beginning of the self-glorified history of the Federation. I find it appalling that throughout the Star Trek franchise, the Federation’s own imperialism, patriarchy, and oppression is masked by the contrast to barbaric and evil acts of other alien empires (i.e. the Cardassian occupation of Bajor; the impulsive, warlike dark-skinned Klingon race; the drug-addicted, fight-to-death Jem’Hadar in service of the ever-expanding, conquest-hungry Dominion empire). This movie continues that trend by introducing us to Nero, an angry and impulsive Romulan who seeks total destruction of the Federation and Vulcan homeworlds. Pitted against such an irrational foe with no virtue for diplomacy, it’s not hard to see the Federation as the progressive, virtuous entity. But in case there’s any sympathy for Nero, we’re reminded of the Federation’s peace-spreading mission, or its “humanitarian armada” [an oxymoron or a Bush-ism?], early in the film by Captain Pike. It’s important to juxtapose the Romulan Nero against his distant Vulcan cousins, whose logic, propriety, and alliance with the liberal Federation inevitably triggers intense sympathy by movie viewers once genocide against its race has been committed. As for the genocide of Romulus, the film never addresses or resolves the catalyst of Nero’s wave of violence. I’m NOT defending Nero’s actions by any means, but I think it’s important to note that the Federation, despite its liberal facade, is an empire in an inter-imperialist rivalry against other empires, and thus commits numerous abuses of its own (throughout the franchise, we see examples like martial law on Earth following the Federation’s faking of Dominion presence; Sisko’s tampering of a hologram to trick the Romulans to attack the Dominion; Section 31, Starfleet’s paralegal intelligence agency; many other great examples in DS9 Seasons 4 and beyond). A final way the Federation masks its imperialism is through the inclusion of different races that kind of says, “Hey look, we’re the good guys because we have funny looking aliens and a few people of color on the bridge.” I won’t belabor this following point, but there are too many parallels between the Federation and US empire spreading democracy abroad.

2. Deglorification of manual labor, Glorification of militarization
If this movie did not take place in the Trek universe but in contemporary America, it would be easy to see this film as a recruitment tool or propaganda piece for the US military. Captain Pike appreciates the toughness and courage of Kirk, but sees Kirk’s life on earth as a waste of talent. Such attributes, Pike reasons, is worthy of Starfleet. Like military recruitment ads, there’s a sense of “Are you brave? Are you macho? Then join now!” This is accentuated by Pike’s final line at the bar, “I dare you” to best your father, to which Kirk responds the next day, “I’ll be an officer in 3, not 4 years.” What’s tragic in this story is that, like in the US, there’s a stigmatization of manual/blue-collar labor (a background from which young Kirk comes). So many times it’s the US capitalists and corporations that get celebrated, but the fact is, their wealth depends on the masses of workers who produce for them. This same logic can be used to explain Scotty’s introduction in the film, where we see him complaining about his placement in an isolated Federation outpost. Granted, it’s inhumane to be working alone, but his comment needs to be seen in the broader context of deglorification of manual labor.

3. Elite-centric view of the world
Similar to deglorification of manual labor, but more broadly speaking, the film looks down upon ordinary people like you and me. This can be seen by Spock’s rescue of the five or six Vulcan elites. He claims that these are the most important Vulcans on the entire planet because all of Vulcan culture rests with them. So are the rest of the Vulcans devoid of culture? Are they lesser than the elites? It’s funny that he holds the survival of Vulcanness on five or six old male elites who cannot reproduce on their own. This theme is also seen in the evaluation of Spock, where a few elites have the exclusive authority to determine whether or not he’s Vulcan; and the evaluation of Kirk, where a few elites determine his fate in the Federation. So much for democracy in the ‘liberal’ Federation.

4. Patriarchy of the Federation
Besides, the aforementioned scene of Vulcan elders being male (besides Spock’s mother), I’m having difficulty remembering any women in the movie who did not have a sexual role. From Uhara’s opening scene, her sexual qualities are assessed. Ultimately, it’s her sexuality that tames Spock, so to speak, from irrational breakdown. It seems that every other woman in the movie, be it having a passing role or Uhara’s roommate, is in some way sexually evaluated by Kirk. Like the ‘tough’ ads of US armed forces, you’re rarely going to see women climbing the ropes or shooting the gun. Make no mistake, the Federation, like US empire, is patriarchal.

  • Afrose

    Bao, you have written a very good criticism of District 9. Particularly your emphasis on the lack of movement dynamics and systems of organization that the aliens might have had. The movie never addresses the contradiction that the aliens have very sophisticated technology- someone speculates that they are part of a hive whose queen has died. It becomes pretty obvious that this isn’t true but there is no other hypothesis put forward. A deeper contradiction that you touched upon is that if these aliens are so scientifically advanced, they must be organizationally advanced. There’s no way a million aliens traveled to earth without being organized. But the movie omits this. Also, something I noticed is that the aliens never harmed each other, and only harmed someone else when they posed a threat. They seemed much more civilized than the MNU officials.

    As for your comment on whiteness, I agree that Wickus as the hero in a majority black or person of color film (lets assume that the aliens are poc, since they’re treated like it) is a played out, racist element that needs abandoned. However, I do disagree with your statement that a “white” person can never be the victim of white supremacy. If our goal is partly to end whiteness, then we have to believe that white people can break with whiteness and throw their lot in with people of color. Its certainly possible for people of color and white people to be retaliated against for fighting white supremacy. Now, I don’t think that Wickus throws in his lot with the aliens at all. Sure, he looks like an alien, but he cant wait to become a human again, and he screws over Christopher in the film in order to achieve his retransformation faster. So he’s not much of a symbol for multi-racial solidarity.

  • BaoYunCheng

    Hi Afrose, thanks for the comment and I do think you’re right about white anti-racists being attacked for throwing their lot in with poc’s. I think the issue is more over semantics than concept, as my argument was that white folks cannot be victimized simply on the basis of their skin color alone under white supremacy (i.e. in institutionalized ways like profiling and job application process). In my analysis, I think I was getting at the idea that some white liberals believe that they can ‘experience’ persecution in an institutionalized sense-even if they aren’t actively fighting against white supremacy-simply by being in communities of color.

  • mlove

    BYC, I think you hit on something with the limitations of the liberal imagination here.

    If this movie is a take-down on the liberal imagination, it seems it is still a prisoner of it. It isn’t only the deliberately cartoonish, schlocky characterization in the movie–a Peter Jackson specialty–seems to support the mocking of this imagination. It’s own limits come in when the movie can’t enter into the space of the aliens from their point of view.

    Watching the movie you expect a radical shift in subjectivity when Wikus is forced to hide in the ghetto, where the story will now be told from the view of its inhabitants. The fact that this doesn’t happen shows that this imagination is incapable of seeing the system from viewpoint of the oppressed. It’s similar to David Simon and The Wire. Probably not a more fierce taking apart of the American system in television ever, but the show sees little alternative emerging from this decaying order.

    The end result is, and this is what really struck me, Wikus is as horrifying as this world that is being portrayed. You can’t feel anything but the deepest contempt for Wikus. This dude is a moral scumbag. Wikus is not the white liberal savior of so many of these movies–think of The Constant Gardener, or The International, which is much more self-conscious about this. He is this “hero” kind of turned inside out to reveal the monster that the white liberal hero really is.

    Wikus is the perfect representative of system that creates zones of surplus humanity–zones where the system doesn’t see “citizens” but “bare life”.

  • mlove

    As someone who has geeked-out to the Star Trek franchise–mainly Next Generation and Deep Space 9 (DS9 is the best)–I gotta say I liked Abrams’ take on it. This is mainly because he burned out all the pretentiousness and created a summer blockbuster movie with a lot of energy and familiar stereotypes that–and this is the key–didn’t take itself too seriously.

    But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of signs of the times in the movie. Deep Space 9, like you said BYC, took apart a lot of the liberal imperialism of the Next Generation, but it didn’t abandon the political and moral problems plaguing the 20th century. Abrams and his crew taking apart the Star Trek franchise isn’t space clearing gesture. It’s an example of deep-seated cynicism. You see this in Cloverfield when he burns down Bloomberg New York. But when you look at Lost and this re-visioning of Star Trek–two series that loudly say they are taking up the “big questions”–you get the sense of the pessimism that surrounds the whole attempt. It isn’t only that both are really skeptical about figuring out answers or ways forward to these “big questions”, it’s like taking up these questions itself is just a gesture–just a matter of “style”.

  • t’pau

    At least one of the Vulcan elders Spock rescued was female, an older woman. She’s not even that difficult to spot in the rescue scenes.

  • Sarah

    I thought that was a really good essay, just one thing stuck out to me: why do we think Kirk was doing manual labor before he joined Starfleet? From what Pike said, it sounded to me like he was making his living in some less-than-legal ways, as a “genius-level repeat offender.”

  • Phrone

    I agree with a lot about what you said about District 9, but disagreed with a lot about what you said about Star Trek.

    I think District 9′s biggest problem was that it had this great idea that it didn’t know what to do with. It made a lot of good points (most of which you hit on) but then it bought into a lot of the same stereotypes. The only scene I really liked was when the main character was sacrificing himself to save the alien — it’s a good reversal of the “heroic brown man dying to save the white man” trope (see: Ironman).

    I think there’s definitely a level of sexism in the Star Trek movie, but I think there were also some refreshingly positive messages.
    1. Spock loved his mother. This is one of the only portrayals of a good, healthy father-mother relationship that I can think of…admittedly, I first saw the movie after reading Watchmen.
    2. There is no “no means yes” here. A lot of movies have a female character who will reject the advances of the male protagonist only to sleep with him later. (See: Ironman) Here, Uhura rejects Kirk and then never changes her mind. It was refreshing to see.
    3. Gaila’s role was basically a stereotype waiting to happen, but there’s actually a reversal of the assumed relationship (Kirk is surprised that Gaila has slept around)
    4. There’s a woman of color as the main romantic character! A lesser movie would have made one of the white females from TOS (such as Yeoman Rand or Nurse Chapel) the primary love interest. As a Latina, I was overjoyed to see a non-white woman’s relationship being taken seriously, not pathologized, and given central place in the movie.

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    Greetings…

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  • http://www.markwilhelm.com Mark Wilhelm

    There’s a good reason Christopher Johnson is the only “smart” alien. It has to do with the movie’s backstory/lore. If you haven’t spent the extra effort to actually research the movie’s story, then you wouldn’t know this.

    If you haven’t spent the extra effort to actually research the movie’s story and pedigree (the director is South African, probably knows more about the nation’s problems than you learned from Wikipedia), you shouldn’t write a review of it. Do your homework next time and perhaps you won’t be quick to identify supposed racism in films.