The Other “Other”


I didn’t want to make too much out of District 9‘s political message since “racism is bad” is really not the most challenging theme in the world, but David Sirota’s appreciation of the film did get me thinking about one thing that I thought was nicely done:

Even more important than the visuals, though, is the plot. By setting the movie in South Africa, the refugee camp/anti-alien racism is a powerful allegory about the universality of oppression. One of the film’s most powerful messages (and there are a number of messages in this movie) is that even groups that have been oppressed can themselves turn into oppressors. In the movie, South Africa’s black population is just as anti-alien as its white population. In real life, we have plenty of examples of the same kind of thing. As just one of many examples, in Israel, some (but certainly not all or most) Jews – despite their own history experiencing oppression – express extremely racist views about Arabs.

Something that I noticed watching the movie was that District 9‘s version of South Africa seemed pretty free of racial tensions. There was a tendency, as in real-world South Africa, for whites to disproportionately occupy high-status social and economic roles. But class dynamics weren’t explicitly racialized, and nobody said anything related to black-white (or, for that matter, anglophone-afrikaaner) tensions. Instead, the introduction of Prawns and, to a lesser extent, Nigerians into the dynamic apparently helped build a greater sense of human and South African solidarity. That kind of thing isn’t the prettiest element of human nature, but it rings pretty true—broadening the circle of tolerance often entails identifying a new “other” against which the new, broader “we” can be defined.