Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Prawn's Trail of Tears

District 9 details the aftermath of an alien landing in Johannesburg, South Africa. The film uses the interactions between government officials and everyday citizens with the aliens or Prawns to convey ideas about racism and the inhumane treatment of others. As Charles stated, this commentary most closely mirrors South Africa’s history of apartheids, but I believe that its ideas may also be used to interpret many other historical events. I find many similarities between the South African’s treatment of the Prawns and the United States’ treatment of the Native Americans. Just as the District 9 ghetto was set up outside of Johannesburg, our government established Indian reservations outside of settled areas. These territories were used to isolate the ‘savage’ natives from the ‘civilized’ inhabitants of the new world. The idea that the Native Americans were an inferior race and were un-human was prevalent and we subjected them to untold cruelties similar to the cruelty shown to the Prawns in District 9. However, violence toward humans was prevalent among the Prawns, just as the Indians often lashed out at Americans. It can be surmised, though, that this violence in both cases was the result of cultural confusion and/or unjust treatment. The eviction notices that the Prawns were tricked into signing is starkly similar to the treaties that the Native Americans signed conceding their land to the US. Just as the prawns had no understanding of private property, the Indians were unaware of the concept as well. One of the citizens of Johannesburg even suggests that the government release a disease that will selectively kill off the Prawn population in an attempt to rid the city of their presence. This grotesque idea was actually realized among the Native American populations who were intentionally exposed to European diseases like small pox. Without the essential immunities to fight off these diseases, Native American populations were decimated by these epidemics. Instead of collaborating with the Prawns who clearly possessed superior technology and knowledge of the universe, the humans in District 9 seemed disgusted by the Prawns and entrapped them in a state of poverty and mayhem as if to assure themselves of their superiority. Similarly, early Americans saw the Native Americans as uncivilized and did not take advantage of the Indians’ wealth of knowledge of the land and climate. We see another similarity between the two cases in the role of the Nigerians who charge the Prawns exorbitant prices for seemingly worthless goods like cat food and trash. This is similar to the pioneers who exchanged bits of tin or food for gold with the Native Americans.

Because it was my second time to see the film, I found myself siding more and more with the Prawns than with the humans. I think it is interesting, though, because at first the film makes the viewer feel afraid or disgusted by the Prawns and it is only toward the middle/end of the film that we realize the full extent of the South African government's cruel actions. The first time I saw the film I had trouble finding common ground with the Prawns and was intent upon staying loyal to the humans in the film. I think that the point of the movie was perhaps to instill this change of heart in the viewer and to convey a message about treating all beings with respect and understanding. This message can be applied in hindsight to a number of situations including the one I discussed above.

1 comment:

  1. As Sarah mentioned, District 9 encompasses larger themes of racism and humanity. I think the writers were using the prawns to make a stark comparison of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality often produced by racial divides. This was also probably an exaggerated criticism of racial prejudices-we are portraying oozing trash-eating aliens as the group of outcasts, but is this really so different from our historical treatment of other humans? I found it particularly poignant when one Johannesburg resident is interviewed and says “if they were from a different country maybe I could see it-but they’re not even from our planet. I don’t know where they go, they just must go.” Similar attitudes are often widespread when unwelcome refugees are placed too close to home.

    There are countless examples to cite throughout history of ethnic cleansing, race wars, and overall brutality ignited from the color of our skin. Even though District 9 could be viewed as a more direct parallel to the apartheids in Africa where it is set, it paints a picture of tragedies that have befallen many groups of people caught between power struggles and displaced from their homes. I feel that the movie makes a point by having Christopher cast in with the rest of the prawns. Obviously there are varying degrees of intelligence in the aliens-as stated in the movie, perhaps the majority of the ship’s captains and engineers were killed in the crash and only less civilized grunt workers were left on Earth. Christopher is obviously not the latter, he even wears a semblance of tattered clothes, perhaps trying to appear more ‘human’ like and therefore more civilized in our eyes. He shows understanding of laws, shows ‘human’ emotion with his love for his son, and a compassion for his people. This is yet another instance where the movies is making a criticism of our faltering sense of humanity-this prawn has more of a moral conscience than the monsters mutilating his people in the name of progress, money, and power. Where does the line for ethical treatment get drawn? By gender, by age, by race, by species, by planet? This goes along with our class discussion about the alien genre often being a forum to express disagreement with our actions as a human race.

    As one more note, I thought the fact that Christopher’s advanced knowledge with alien technology was a point made deliberately by the writer as a social commentary on what we can overlook-and miss out on-when we assume that another group is inferior. If humans had taken the time to learn more about the prawns they would have discovered not all of them were dumbed down creatures but some were highly capable and emotional beings. The problem of the ship and its passengers being there could have even been solved had we taken the time and consideration to look beyond their grotesque outer shells to see what lay underneath. I found District 9 to be a sad movie and at times disturbing to watch-maybe because it reflects actions going on in the real world as I write this that hit a little too close to home.