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white saviour A COLONIAL THEME

By Tsepo Mamatu | Sep 30, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

IN THE past weeks the media has been flooded with reports of the commercial success of the film District 9.

In certain cases, some have written to the effect that, finally, we have a movie that critiques apartheid and showcases the buffoonery of white power. In a sense, we are told this film must be celebrated because it speaks back to the history of forced removals while making money for its producers.

As a critical writer, I made the effort of watching the film. Try as I might, I failed to understand or at the least be able to justify the hysteria that insisted this film was a progressive project.

I acknowledge the triumphant feat of Neil Blomkamp, the South African director behind this project. My issues then with this film are simply that an unassuming audience is sold a package that they must celebrate because the film speaks b(l)ack to their past experiences of injustice.

On the surface, the film pretends to be addressing issues of xenophobia, yet prostitutes images of Nigerians as being filthy, oversexed and incapacitated caricatures who would do anything to have sex with the so-called aliens.

Such depictions of a group of people need to be challenged by critical spectators.

More importantly, the world of the film is situated in a South African township. Yet, in this very space, which is often central to the black lived experience, blackness is erased from the frames.

This erasure takes place in various ways, be it in the way that black characters are given little or, at the most, incoherent dialogue, as evidenced particularly by the presence of the character played by Kenneth Nkosi. All we see of this character is his body and never his mind.

In this way, this particular depiction echoes past representations that drove the colonial impulse, where black bodies were absent by their presence/silence.

This is undermined by portraying this particular character as a tragic hero .

HE same character masterminding the eviction process is afforded by the narrative an opportunity to save the same people that he was harassing. This particular turnout of events positions the black audience to empathise with the protagonist for we realise how unfortunate his position really is.

There is nothing new about this depiction. During the TRC process, many victims of apartheid were forced to feel sorry for the perpetrators. Now, the real victims, it turns out, were not the masses being harassed or, as is depicted in the film, the so-called aliens who were being evicted, but the perpetrators. If one follows this reasoning, it would make sense why so many black people are more inclined to feel sorry for white beggars as opposed to black beggars.

The reasoning behind this is simple in a complex way; black people have normalised power relations as operating within the binary of black and white. If this binary is disrupted, say seeing a white person in the role of the victim, as the character of Wikus suggests, or that of the white beggar, black people, because of the ancestry of colonialisation, want to offer baas his position of power back.

District 9 ends with Van der Merwe siding with the aliens and helping them to help themselves.

Indeed, their future looks certain as they make their way home. Colonial literature is replete with examples of baas as a saviour. We know for instance that missionaries had one goal for Africa, to offer its inhabitants life everlasting through the doctrine of Christianity.

N many instances, we read how these missionaries had to brave diseases and wars as they made their way on the "Dark Continent".

By extension, a critical spectator who makes meaning of what he sees will be aware of this interpretation.

Using this logic then, I argue that Van der Merwe assumes the role of a saviour, with his wounds bearing testimony for the pain he had to suffer, so that others can live.

Black people must watch films actively and stand up against the likes of Leon Schuster, who make laughing at blackness a commercially viable enterprise.

Watching such a film must be an act of resistance, and we reject images of ourselves as being at the receiving end of baas and his grace, a point District 9 missed by nine yards.

l The writer is a lecture in Film Studies at Wits. He writes in his personal capacity.


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