Becoming the alien: Racism Ideology and District 9
The whole point of Wikus, of course, is that he is such a prat. He is thick as a plank. He is awful. He is
as unlike a Bruce Willis or a Samuel Jackson as it is possible to be.
He is cringe-makingly uncool: cheesily in love with his ‘angel’ wife, dorkily clumsy in front of the
camera, cravenly obedient to authority, crudely bullying to the aliens that he deals with, and
horrifyingly inept in his dealings with his Black underlings, whom he patronizes with cheery
ignorance. At the same time, in his earnestness, in his desire to be liked, in his bright-eyed and
bushy-tailed eagerness to make a success of this impossible, chaotic, disaster of a job, one cannot
but like him.
This is the heart of the film. In many ways the most disturbing and
unsettling aspect of the movie is the rendition of the aliens themselves,
who appear like nothing so much as huge, quasi-human cockroaches.
They are ‘prawns’, they are ‘bottom feeders’, they appear to be
addicted to giant tins of blue cat food; they live on rubbish dumps, they
breed. They are disgusting. The figures of the aliens are, in a sense,
nothing other than the exaggerated, concrete rendering of the way in
which racist discourse depicts its objects: the way Nazism talked about
‘the Jew’ and Apartheid ideology talked about ‘Coloureds’; the way
present-day white racists in Europe (and black and white xenophobes
down here!) talk about immigrants. By presenting the aliens to us, not
as attractive, noble creatures, by making them half-human and half insect, the film constantly trips
us up by making the racist gaze our gaze.
Rather more subtly – but perhaps more disturbingly - the same logic is at play in the film’s treatment
of the reviled ‘Nigerians’, who are depicted in much the same fantastical ‘othering’ way as the aliens
themselves. Like the aliens, the ‘Nigerians’ are rendered as surrealistically horrendous; in fact part of
their awfulness is that they live so close to the aliens, doing business with them, even (or so some of
the whites in the film fantasize) having sex with them. And no wonder. For in the racist world view,
the most terrible thing about the relation with the Other is that the boundary might break down –
that ‘they’ might become like ‘us’, or we like ‘them’.
Part of the fascination of the science- fictional notion of the alien is that it allows us to imagine an
encounter with an ‘other’ that is both like and entirely unlike us – and who therefore brings the
thrilling possibility that ‘they’ might do to ‘us’ what ‘we,’ the whites, the Northerners, have done to
blacks, to Indians, to ‘natives’ on so many places of own world. ‘Take us to your leader’ says the tall
ambiguous figure… And then? Do they come in peace? Are they wise? Do they bring technology or
miraculous medicine? Do they invite us to join an interstellar commonwealth of worlds? Or do they
eviscerate us, turn us into slaves, eat our children, take our land?