District 9 is the kind of movie you see at Grauman’s Chinese. After wading through throngs of sunburned tourists and ghastly cartoon character impersonators, I entered the sanctum sanctorum of movie geeks. The kitsch is three-feet thick in Grauman’s, but the audience that packed that theater wasn’t there to make snarky comments about outdated Orientalist fantasies: the fanboys were there, my friends, and they were there to do some serious bonding with strangers while submitting to the seduction of a very large screen.
Most of them had come to see a film that bore the sacred imprimatur of Peter Jackson. And Sony’s clever Comic-Con-driven marketing campaign gave this low-budget flick a big boost (I don’t think there was one square block in Hollywood that didn’t bear those chilling segregation-themed posters). However, Peter Jackson isn’t my cup of tea: I was there to see the mighty power of science fiction in action. While all artistic forms offer the possibility of incisive social critique, science fiction is especially well suited to it, and it looked to me like District 9 was going to take full advantage of this capability.
With science fiction there is an expectation that a new, not-yet or not-quite real world will be imagined, and that universe will only make sense because of its deep roots in the world we know now. Great science fiction can convert that oscillation between fantasy and reality into a hard-hitting expose about who we are as a species and and where we might be going.
I’m a firm believer in adding a teaspoon of sugar to get the medicine down. District 9 opted for a couple tablespoons, but the therapeutic value was hardly diluted. In fact, District 9 is an excellent example of a film that encases a powerful social message in what some would consider the dross of contemporary entertainment (in academic quarters, we call this entertainment education). Young male moviegoers have demonstrated a strong affiliation for anthropomorphic militaristic machinery, ear-shattering gun battles, guttural male screaming, and projectile barfing and, let me tell you, District 9 has dutifully delivered all of the above in a fairly tightly woven, if occasionally illogical, tale. But it has also managed to concoct a story that depicts the horrors of apartheid and the plight of refugees in an unflinching mockumentary style. With its giant spaceship and all the noisy hullabaloo, District 9 was like catnip for fanboys, but many of them probably left that theater thinking twice about the injustice of segregation and the plight of the dispossessed. I suspect this audience was perfectly primed for a good Darfur PSA.
While serious filmmakers and social activists may long for a more pristine presentation of global social justice issues, we need to acknowledge the value of mainstream popular culture as a purveyor of powerful social messages. Movies like District 9 offer an excellent opportunity for activists to ignite conversations about serious social justice issues with people who never thought they’d give a damn. We shouldn’t let a little barf scare us away.