The Message of District 9: Nigerians are Redundant

Now that District 9 is out on DVD and given the fact that it was on a lot of people’s ‘Best Films of 2009″ lists, is a good excuse to talk about its depiction of its Nigerian villains as unrepentant cannibals again. Recently I reread Ato Quayson’s take on “District 9,” especially the portrayal how the Nigerians are the only group that can’t be redeemed. (Quyason teaches Africana studies at the University of Toronto.)

Here’s some highlights:

… In order to radically alter their social relations in a society that clearly thinks very little of them, the Nigerians in the film on the other hand want to master not science and technology, but the mere use of the armaments they have acquired through exploiting the needs of others. And it is not clear what ultimate claims of sociality they want to make in the mastery of these arms. To the aliens is assigned the mastery of science and technology, but to the Nigerians the mastery first of the alien military technology, and later the society in which they reside The problem with the Nigerians’ quest for mastery, however, is that it is shown as being mediated through black magic (the cannibalism) and thus is essentially the marker of a moral and intellectual deficit. We see then that in the social imaginary of District 9 it is the Nigerians that are the true Other. The prawns are only partially so, because they are shown to possess superior “human” characteristics of familial love, reason (in the mastery of science), and political consciousness (in the prawn leader’s desire to come back and save his people).

… [T]he color coding of the film involves a white protagonist partially metamorphosing into an alien prawn, befriending the prawn leader as a fugitive, and almost being devoured by black folk. And it is not insignificant that the hero is himself a scientist. Thus it is black life that retains the mark of the intractable moral deficit, depicted here in the form of rabid acquisitiveness and cannibalism and handily projected onto Nigerians. Since, as we have shown, the cannibalistic tendencies of the Nigerians in the film exceeds their current historicity as scamsters, what the film does is to deploy their representation as a shorthand to register black life in terms of the excess of unreason (magical thought and cannibalism), something they could have done without referencing Nigeria at all. Given the subtle binary overlaps and oppositions that we have seen help shape the discursive relations between the alien prawns and the Nigerians in the film, it would not be unfair to say that the “Nigerians” are redundant, and that we are obliged to interpret them predominantly as ciphers of black life rather than as a reference to a putative Nigerian historicity as such.

Read the whole thing yourself.

Further Reading