District 9, a science-fiction film set in South Africa, has been a blockbuster since it opened in American theaters Aug. 14. The story explores the plight of huge, chitinous aliens who've been trapped and maltreated for decades after their unexpected appearance in the skies above Johannesburg — touching on themes of apartheid, xenophobia and redemption along the way.
Now District 9 is playing in South Africa — it opened nationwide on Aug. 28 there — and many of those emerging from theaters over the weekend responded to subtleties in the film that may have been lost on many American audiences.
Start with the film's title.
"In some ways, it was shocking," says Cape Town resident Christo Schutte, stopping to talk outside a local theater. "I'm a young South African, thinking of District Six."
District Six was a historically interracial Cape Town neighborhood that the government deemed a slum — and from which more than 60,000 residents were forcibly removed — in the 1970s, under apartheid laws. Apartheid was the system of legal racial separation enforced by South Africa's white minority government from 1948 to 1994.
Schutte, who's white, said watching South African security forces violently evict aliens from their homes in the fictional slum that gives the film its title made him reflect on the real-life forced removals in District Six.
"What happened there ... I never understood, because I never really experienced that," Schutte says. "So for me, that was a shock, as a white South African, to see that."
Historical Echoes, And Contemporary Ones Too
For Jamila Hoveni, a 26-year-old black South African, imagery of her nation's ugly past is a bad message to send out to the world.
"It is a representation of the old South Africa, you know, like the apartheid state," Hoveni says. "Whites running the police state, and black people living in slums. Just the whole set-up in the movie, it reminded me of the apartheid era."
For some, those fictional forced removals — accompanied by scenes of angry black South Africans insisting that the aliens must go — have provided a visceral flashback to recent real-life violence in South Africa, as well. Last year, the nation was rocked by a series of deadly attacks on foreigners, including economic refugees from Zimbabwe and other neighboring countries.
It's District 9's main character who initially leads the effort to evict millions of aliens and intern them in giant camps. It hasn't been lost on many in Cape Town that the character, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is an Afrikaner — a member of the Dutch-descended white minority that instituted apartheid.
"Generally, it's the Afrikaners who were the apartheid people," says Janet Daffy. Daffy isn't Afrikaner herself, but she says the evolution of the character — who goes from following orders to fighting on behalf of the aliens — is a fitting tribute to the post-apartheid South Africa.
Redemption, Or Just Self-Preservation?
Others view Wikus more critically.
"I don't know if you want to cast him as a hero," says Fortune Sibanda, a 33-year-old South African resident originally from Zimbabwe. He says Wikus' decision to help the aliens is driven at least in part by self-preservation: The character acts to save the aliens only after an accidental contamination starts transforming him into an alien himself.
"I'm not sure, if he didn't [have that accident], if he would identify with them," Sibanda says. "So for me, he's not a hero — he's driven by self-interest."
Worse, Sibanda says he thinks the film is undermined by its liberal use of what he sees as racial and ethnic stereotypes.
He points to the masses of impoverished blacks and aliens living in the film's shantytowns, and to the crime that filmmaker Neill Blomkamp depicts as flourishing there. One particularly vicious District 9 kingpin — a Nigerian, heavily armed and attended by a traditional healer — schemes to master the aliens' technology, going to great lengths to do it.
"I think what it does, it shows South Africa from white eyes — the fear that the African is a cannibal who wants to eat others to assimilate their power," Sibanda says. "So in trying to do all that, I think the movie totally failed at the end of the day."