Saturday, August 22, 2009

District 9 Review and Commentary on Racial Representation

It's 3 am, I'm in New York visiting for the weekend, it's hot as hell, and I can't sleep. I saw District 9 a week ago and have been meaning to write a review, so I figure now is as good a time as any.

It is refreshing to go to the movies and see something that is new and unexpected in both form, story, and message. I was completely dazzled (I must be, right? It's a week later and I'm thinking about the movie at 3 o'clock in the morning!). It was one of those things where I went in expected to be surprised. Kind of like Seven Pounds, where the advertising campaign is run on the secrecy technique and everybody says they can't tell you about the movie because it'd spoil the whole thing. That is how I felt going in to this. So, in that sense, I wasn't surprised, because I was expecting the unexpected. But I can say that I was expecting something original, and original is what I got.

Without giving away too much of the movie, I'd say the movie shines in its character development. The main character makes a complete 360 (in more ways than one) and it is interesting and extremely compelling to watch the process. In addition, the alien creatures are made so that we relate to and feel for them moreso than in any other alien movie I've seen (I guess besides ET). This is probably because in a lot of other movies, the aliens are the bad guys. In this one they're...well, they're almost human. The fact that by the end of the film you feel more connected to something completely computer generated and that doesn't speak a language that could ever be muttered by human tongue is a great achievement.

From a writer's standpoint, I truly appreciate the creativity in the little things. I remember when, during my screenwriting class this past Spring, my teacher (Adam Tobin) critiqued the first act of a horror screenplay I was working on. The scene was one where the main character's ex-husband went crazy in the middle of their divorce settlement meeting. I had him do some regular, run-of-the-mill craziness like shoving a pencil through someone's eye or bashing his own head in with his fist. Adam suggested that I go for original: we've already seen that in movies, especially the horror genre. He said, for example, maybe character could start to chew his own fingers off or something. That creepy little piece of advice stuck with me. And it rang in my head again and again when watching District 9. There were so many things that could have been made into your everyday action flick occurrence, but there were noticeable points where I know the writers were having fun with it. Think laser-room scene from Resident Evil, but less in-your-face and riddled throughout. Maybe it's just the writer in me, but I suspect not. I think a lot of people will remember a lot of parts from this movie.

There is one issue I should address and it was sparked by a discussion on a list from my alma mata, Stanford: racial representation. I walked away thinking that, besides being a kickass bout in originality, a solid social commentary on apartheid. Others focused more on the representation of Africans (Nigerians, specifically) in the movie. They are depicted as savages, more or less, and do things like practice voodoo, inter-species prostitution, and barter illegally with the aliens. I can understand how people could cringe at the portrayals (honestly, while watching it, I lightheartedly thought myself 'well, this just set Nigerians back a hundred years), but I saw it as being creative. The director is from South Africa and that's where the setting was: Africa (and where the setting needed to be to bring light to the real analogous issue: apartheid). Fact is, wherever you go, human nature is corruption. If the movie took place in America, there would be the same negative connotations with Americans, but the director wanted to reflect a real problem in a fashion that would make it to the general public, and hence the setting. And instead of walking on eggshells because he was working with blacks, he kept it real.

I think that white people were actually portrayed worse in this movie. Like a lot of movies, they are the ones pushing for domination over 'lesser races' and their lust for power makes them do despicable things. This is actually seen in a LOT of movies, but I think people overlook that. In this movie, our image of the average white American male is the REAL antagonist. I think that this movie was just real with itself and its audience about what COULD happen and I'm glad for that. I do realize, however, that, combined with ignorance, some people could step away with just one more stereotype about what they think the black race is all about. But that's all around us already and hopefully people will take away the brighter message.

Well, guys, I think (hope, pray) maybe I can sleep now. It's been fun and, if you haven't yet (hell, even if you have), go see District 9!

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