COMMENT: DISTRICT 9 AND THE NIGERIANS

Nigerian-born, Brooklyn writer, Teju Cole, writing in Nigeria’s NEXT newspaper:

Even making allowances for the fact that [District 9] is a fable, with strong elements of satire and allegory, the one-dimensionality of the Nigerian characters is striking.

The Nigerians live in District 9 with the prawns, and sell cat food to them (the prawns are cat food addicts) in exchange for weapons. In addition, the Nigerians run a prostitution ring (renting out their women for sex with the aliens) and occasionally murder prawns to use for juju.

In other words, the most violent and offensive clichés of Nollywood have been grafted onto the film, without the humanising, narrative context of Nollywood.

The decontextualization is brought home by the fact that the Nigerian gang-leader is actually named Obasanjo (no, I couldn’t believe my ears either), and these so-called Nigerians all speak Zulu.

This raises the questions of why Blomkamp, who is so scrupulously realist in other parts of the film, has chosen to depict his Nigerian characters as caricatures. One possibility is that he is trying to extend the film’s larger argument: that we are callous to strangers among us.

It is a fact that Nigerian immigrants in South Africa are often persecuted, stereotyped as drug dealers and prostitutes, and denied housing and jobs. Perhaps Blomkamp is simply holding up a mirror to society, reminding his viewers that the film is not about humanoid prawns who, after all, do not really exist, but rather about people, who do.

‘District 9,’ which has been read by most critics as an allegory of apartheid (parallels have been drawn to forced removals from the real-life District Six in Cape Town during the 70s), might be more profitably viewed through the lens of ongoing anti-foreigner sentiment in South Africa.

There’s a particular harshness in the violence that the disenfranchised mete out to the even more disenfranchised. Perhaps this is why the Nigerians in the film are depicted as sub-human: because, to many, they are.

Perhaps he wants audiences to ask: why do you have such a lurid imaginary notion of Nigerians? Why this need to designate others as barbarians? Or perhaps it is simply a massive blindspot on Blomkamp’s part, a failure that mars what is otherwise a remarkable work of art.

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Further Reading

Drugs and police in Mathare

Drug use among young people in Nairobi’s slums is on the rise. Youth also face arbitrary arrests by the police, resulting in jail time which turns them into hardcore criminals in a vicious cycle.

Sankara is not dead

Thomas Sankara has emerged as both a lesson on the uncertainties of revolutionary change and the possibilities for people-centered development for the present and future.