Although Neil Blomkamp’s (A white South African director) movies were relatively successful with regard to their box offices around the world but specifically in South Africa, the critics’ attention was also drawn to the depiction of Black Africans and Bantu Immigrants. The director himself pointed out that he did not aim to depict the population of South Africa in derogatory terms, but it was noticed by the viewers that Nigerians are depicted there as criminals, cannibals, and prostitutes as well as other Africans as Aliens (Karimi 2009).
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The visual representation of Black Africans in these movies is a good example of how blockbusters and films were many white individuals who control industries, mostly in South Africa, tend to depict their “fellow” Africans in a derogatory and dehumanizing way, thus providing support for a stereotypical perception of Africans and what is, in essence, to be considered African.
Such movies also directly influence the imbalance of power between the white and the black populations in the country, contributing to institutionalized racism and racist representations of black populations in contemporary media. This paper will focus on the metaphors and implicit and explicit images in three modern-day movies by a white South African director and how the depictions within the movies provide incentives for racism.
Elysium and District 9
Elysium depicts the Earth of 2145, which is polluted and overpopulated, and the situation is only getting worse. While the planet is inhabited with mostly poor people of color, the rich white citizens have moved to a high-tech space station Elysium where they have the best conditions to live. Many people on Earth are involved in dangerous production. One of them, an ex-car thief Max da Costa, who is the protagonist in the story, receives a big portion of radiation at the factory where he works.
The only opportunity to be healed is to get to a Med-Bay, a private machine used for curing people living at Elysium. At the same time, Dalacourt, the Secretary of Defense at Elysium, engages Kruger, who is an antagonist in the story. His task is to prevent invaders from the Earth from reaching the station. Still, Max dares to fly to Elysium. After a sequence of events, Max manages to make all the people citizens of Elysium, but he has to sacrifice his life to do it. Still, the plot contributes to the treatment of the problem of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ by contrasting the people living on Elysium and the rest of the population.
The plot of District 9 pictures contemporary events with a retrospective line that takes a spectator back to the year 1982 when an alien starship was noticed over Johannesburg. Although the exact time of the events is not indicated, it is evident that they are present-day. The aliens from the ship were hosted by the citizens because they were sick and could not leave due to the broken ship. However, 28 years later, the only interest people have in aliens is their advanced weapon.
During an attempt to move aliens to another location, Wikus van der Merwe spits unknown liquid found in one of the aliens, and he starts turning into an alien himself. It is decided to use his body to study the phenomenon, but Wikus manages to escape. The fate of this antagonist remains unclear from the movie. In this movie, the line between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ is also evident.
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In both stories, there are some plotlines and details that demand further discussion in the context of depicting South Arica. First of all, it is a fact that in both movies, the main protagonists are white. It would be interesting to trace the motives of the director for this choice because the majority of the South African population is made up of the people of color and choosing a white man for the role of a hero is strange.
Another interesting point that attracts attention in both plots is the focus on the disparities that turn into a gap between the major groups involved in the stories. For Elysium, it is the opposition between the rich and the poor, while for District 9, humans and aliens are involved in the conflict. Moreover, both movies have certain flashbacks to the history of South Africa and recall some events such as Apartheid and the establishment of the Rainbow Nation.
Although Elysium mostly focuses on the “rich-poor” dualism and the “Savior” figure of Max da Costa (played by Matt Damon), specific attention should be paid to the representation of race in the movie. The polluted wasteland presented as the Earth in the year 2154 is mostly inhabited by people of color, who are depicted as poor, lacking ambition, and almost savage-like (as are Black Africans in District 9). Their inability to work as a community, constant thefts, violence, and poverty seem to indicate that representatives of the lower class (and non-white races) are unable to build a civilized society. The Earth populated by people of color is drowning in violence and crime, while education programs fail or are perceived as unnecessary (Henry 2014).
The depiction of the main villain in the movie, the white South African named Kruger, also translates a racist representation of the Rainbow Nation. Traditionally, in many movies, the role of an evil antagonist is given to a black character. However, in Elysium, the white villain and his accomplices are presented as highly violent, if not bloodthirsty, characters, who, however, fly in a helicopter with the modern South African flag, a symbol of diversity as well as claim to be “African” in several moments of the movie, when he, as a white South African is of European descent.
This inconsistency in the representation of a white villain instead of a traditional image of a black evil guy, which sometimes becomes obviously stereotyping and derogatory, is what characterizes Blomkamp’s approach (seemingly intentional) to African characters in his movies. The director mainly depicts white South Africans as protagonists, while blacks make the majority of the population that is usually poor.
Thus, the critics notice that in District 9, the black citizen demand from the black government to get rid of aliens in the neighborhood (Sailer 2013). The concept of power and its imbalance, often seen in Blomkamp movies (both in Elysium and District 9), seems to be criticized by the director. Thus, in Elysium, it is an imbalance of power that the rich have compared to the rest of the population; in the case of District 9, there is an obvious gap between the rights and power of aliens who have lived on the Earth for 20 years and humans.
Still, the director falls into his own trap, representing the only savior of the Earth population as a white male, as if in contrast to other (colored) populations who live on Earth. While it is true that Elysium criticizes the capitalist society by depicting the white, rich class literally looking down at lower classes and exploiting them, it still fails to provide positive representations of people of color and South Africans (mostly black), instead of using an oversimplified villain as a representative of the whole South Africa (Mirrlees and Pedersen 2016).
The fact that the main protagonist is white while the oppressed society he represents is black is strange. On the one hand, this approach can be explained by the prevalence of popular stereotypes that black characters are usually evil and criminal. On the other hand, such an approach of the director can probably be explained by the fact that he is a white representative of South Africa himself, so his protagonists are white.
A similar, although possibly even more disturbing representation is seen in District 9, where South Africa (Johannesburg, in this case) is depicted as a terrain drowning in violence, crime, and fear. The arrival of aliens, their life in camps, and inability to understand others might be perceived as a representation of Africans immigrating to South Africa from other parts of the continent, but such an image of people as extraterrestrial humanoid animals (somewhat resembling insects) is derogatory if not humiliating.
The way people call the aliens “prawns” can be compared to the previously used offensive word “nigger” as addressed to a representative of the African race (Wright 2012). The movie uses Apartheid as a metaphor for aliens’ isolation but does not go further in exploring the issue. The movie is an allegory for the real sufferings experienced by the citizens of South Africa both during and after Apartheid (Heller-Nicholas 2011). The title District 9 itself roots back to the segregation typical of the Apartheid period.
At that time, white people were concentrated within an area near Cape Town called District Six (Heller-Nicholas 2011). At the same time, South Africans are presented as populations that do not only eat alien meat but also engage in interspecies sex. The majority of Black Africans, the viewer, sees in the movie are gang members, criminals, or prostitutes. Furthermore, Smith (2009) also points out that Johannesburg depicted in the movie and the real-life city is different. Although South Africa provides good locations for filming and world-class studios and technical crews and District 9 was filmed there, it is different from the real city due to specific features of the plot.
Moreover, the film is rather depicting life with its problems than the city itself. One might think that Johannesburg is depicted in such a way because it reflects the terrors of apartheid, but the exact depiction of this city is found in Chappie, one of Blomkamp’s movies, as well. Still, District 9 is a real picture of events in South Africa. The director confesses that the slum in the movie was a real one. It was an impoverished area, and South Africans were being removed from there (Wright 2012).
Probably, the use of the real setting instead of decorations depicting slum makes the movie so realistic. This raises the question of the comparison between the self and the other, or better put, who can be considered the self and who can be considered the other. The white male in this movie is notoriously claiming to be convinced of him being the “African,” but he is simply representing one of the violent Afrikaners that violated human rights during Apartheid.
Thus, white protagonists can be treated as ‘self’ while the Aliens and the Nigerians are considered to be ‘the others’, providing a mistaken analysis. On the whole, District 9 is not only about the opposition of the Whites and the Blacks. Historically, South Africa became home for many people, such as Zimbabweans or Nigerians, who came there as refugees and stayed. Thus, in this specific environment, aliens who have lived there for 20 years just were another historic layer in the population.
Another movie by Blomkamp, Chappie, is probably, the least politically-colored if compared to the other two discussed earlier (Pappademas 2015). In Chappie, the action takes place in Johannesburg. The police use robots with artificial intelligence to reduce crime rates. One such robot that was damaged was used by Deon Wilson, their creator, to test a new artificial consciousness program. Deon, with the robot, is kidnapped by a gang that wants him to teach them how to turn off the police robots remotely.
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The gang forces Deon to program the robot to serve them and call it Chappie. Thus, Chappie lives with the gang and considers the criminals to be their family. Chappie appears to be a clever creature because, at the end of the story, it manages to save the consciousness of both Deon and Yolandi and put them into robots.
The depiction of Chappie can be at first perceived as non-derogatory as Chappie is a robot, an automaton that is conscious. Chappie, the character, is used by Blomkamp to explore the nature of consciousness and concepts of violence and love. Chappie is presented as the only self-critical and skeptical character throughout the movie, which adds deepth to him (Sculos 2015). However, Rejeki (2017) points out that Chappie is a representation of Black Consciousness, the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.
In fact, robot Chappie also fights materialism and exploitation (represented by Ninja, a gang member who wants to use Chappie for his own needs) and selfishness of another character, Moore, who aims to get the best position in the company Tetravaal that manufactures automatons similarly to the representatives of Black Consciousness Movement fighting against Apartheid (South African History Online 2016). Moore is ready to kill both Chappie and his creator to get what he wants, the guard key that allows to control all police robots.
Despite these positive characteristics of Chappie, he is still seen as a sub-human, both by characters and the director. He was initially created to serve humans but was decommissioned after several years which could be a possible analogy of the story of Apartheid that was initially aimed to prevent racial conflicts, but in fact caused serious problems in relations between races (Encyclopedia Britannica 2017). Each of the characters uses Chappie for own needs, whereas his independence remains a question.
The Theme of the Self and the Other
The issue of the self and the other is frequently discussed in the context of racial and ethnical differences. People or events that are different from the usual ones or the majority gain specific “other” characteristics that lead to stereotyping. At present, stereotyping happens through many sources, but diverse media probably make the most powerful tool. The impact of media on people’s perceptions of themselves and the surrounding world can be not always evident.
For example, in the news it can be better traced while movies may have some hints or images that have impact on the spectators in the plot that are treated as artistic means but not the levers of influence. The world has always been diverse and the differences are significant. Thus, Hall (2003) claims that dissimilarity in people’s perceptions is important and provides four arguments to support his position. Thus, he believes there are linguistic, dialogic, anthropological, and psychoanalytical arguments (Hall 2003). The first linguistic argument is related to making sense of things that becomes possible due to the comparison of the opposite things such as day and night.
In the analyzed movies, these are the comparisons and contradictions of the rich to the poor in Elysium; aliens to the local population in District 9; and humans to robots in Chappie. These contradictions also deal with the anthropological argument that involves classifying things by different cultures to give meaning. For example, in Elysium the society is classified into the selected group living on the station and the rest of the people surviving on the Earth. This parallel is also a perfect representation of the self and the others which is accepted in the depicted society.
In the context of visual representation, attention should be payed to the depiction of the African continent and Africans, both by themselves and the others. In fact, the depiction of racial difference in the popular culture is a common phenomenon since the end of the nineteenth century (Hall 2003). Thus, in the analyzed movies, visual tools contribute to the general idea of the “otherness” of some groups of people. For example, Nigerians depicted as gangsters in District 9, or dirty and impoverished people as contrasted to the rich individuals in Elysium.
One of the controversies about District 9, is the fact that it was banned in Nigeria because of the offensive and caricature depiction of the country and its citizens. Moreover, the actor who played the main villain was not even Nigerian. Thus, the allegory on xenophobia and segregation with aliens in the role of the oppressed group and Nigerians depicted as gangsters, was considered showing Nigeria in a bad light. This ban and the general attitude of the country to the movie proves the impact of mass culture and media on the people’s perceptions. In this case, the perception of the ‘self’ by the nation contradicted the treatment of the ‘others’ provided in the movie.
Despite the fact that Blomkamp frequently claims his movies do not raise political or social issues, the proofs of focus on important problems of racial equality cannot be denied. Chappie might not exploit racist stereotypes as often as Elysium and District 9 do, but the representation of South Africa and Black Africans there does not differ from the previously described movies. Despite the fact that the stories depicted in the movies happen at different times, they mirror the events that had a significant impact on South Africa and its population.
Overall, Blomkamp’s movies tend to depict South Africa in a simplistic and humiliating way, contributing to the chauvinist view of Africans in media that is exposed to people of all race. Making a white South African the protagonist in a movie where he literally continues to confirm racial stereotypes in a country and just generalizing them so much (because all the Aliens in District 9 look the same) just raises too many questions. It puts the question of the self and the other that is appropriate for depicting racial conflicts, into power.
In fact, all the films that were discussed here picture some oppositions. In Elysium, it is the opposition of the rich to the poor; in District 9 aliens are opposed to the local population; in Chappie humans are opposed to robots and the general contrast between the good and the evil is evident. Moreover, in three films the main protagonist is opposed as ‘self’ to ‘the others,’ but the circumstances are different. On the whole, the movies refer to mainly negative events from the history of South Africa and depict, although generalized, their impacts on the country and the citizens.
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