Robert Barron
'District 9' and the Other
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The remarkable film “District 9” is much more than an exciting, science-fiction adventure movie. It explores, with great perceptiveness, a problem that has preoccupied modern philosophers from Hegel to Levinas: how to relate to “the other.” And “District 9,” directed by Neill Blomkamp, poses the question in an extremely dramatic way.

Its plot centers on the relationship between human beings and aliens who have stumbled their way onto Earth. As the film begins, we learn that, in the 1980’s an interstellar spacecraft appeared and hovered over Johannesburg, South Africa. When the craft was boarded, hundreds of thousands of weak, malnourished aliens were discovered. Resembling a cross between insects and apes, these creatures were herded into a great concentration camp near the city where they were allowed to live in squalor for some 20 years. In time, the citizens of Johannesburg came to find the aliens annoying and dangerous. The central narrative commences with the attempt to shut down the camp and relocate the “prawns” to a site far removed from the city. 

Placed in charge of the relocation operation is Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an agreeable, harmless cog of the state. While searching for weapons in one of the aliens’ hovels, Wikus stumbles upon a mysterious cylinder. When he examines it, a black fluid sprays out onto his face, and in a matter of hours, he is desperately ill. He is taken to the hospital, and the doctors who examine him are flabbergasted to discover that his forearm has morphed into the appendage of an alien. Almost immediately, the state officials reduce the suffering man to an object, resolving to dissect him and experiment on him. Wikus manages a miraculous escape, but he is ruthlessly hunted down. I promise not to give away much more of the plot.  I’ll add only this: as his transformation progresses, Wikus becomes an ally of the “prawns” and they come to respect him and to protect him from his persecutors. 

With this sketch of the story in mind, I would like to return to the two worthies mentioned at the outset. The 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel taught that much of human history can be understood as the working out of what he called the “master/slave” relationship. Typically, people in power—politically, culturally, militarily—find a weaker, more vulnerable “other” whom they proceed to manipulate, dominate, exclude and scapegoat. Masters need slaves and slaves, Hegel saw, in their own way, need masters, with each group conditioning the other in a dysfunctional manner. Masters don’t try to understand slaves (think of antiquity, when the dominant Greeks who characterized any foreigners as barbarians, since all their speech was heard by the Greeks as “bar-bar”); instead, they use them. Furthermore, almost all of history is told from the standpoint of the masters, and mastery is the state to which all sane people aspire.  

Emmanuel Levinas, a 20th-century Jewish philosopher whose family was killed in the Holocaust, reminded us how the Bible consistently undermines this master/slave dynamic, since it recounts history from the standpoint of the outsider, the oppressed. Levinas argued that Biblical ethics commences not with philosophical abstractions about the good life, but with the challenging face of the suffering “other.” The prophets of Israel consistently remind the people that since they too were once slaves in Egypt, they must act compassionately toward the stranger, the widow and the orphan. In the faces of those “others,” they find the ground for their own moral commitments. In short, they compelled the people not to adopt the attitude of the master but to move sensitively to the attitude of the slave. 

This unique Israelite perspective came to embodied expression in Jesus, who “though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God a thing to be grasped” and who rather “emptied himself and took the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7-8). In Christ, the God of Israel became a slave, the despised other, even to the point of enduring the rejection of the masters and dying the terrible death of the cross. In Jesus, the God of Israel looks out from the face of the other and draws forth compassion from those who gaze upon him. 

In “District 9,” we see the master/slave dynamic on display: the characterization of the aliens by a derogatory nickname, their sequestration in a squalid ghetto and the violence—direct and indirect—that is visited upon them. These practices are evident from ancient times to the present day. But we see something else as well: an identification of the oppressor with the oppressed, the openness to interpreting the world from the underside, from the perspective of the victim. 
This is the Biblical difference, though I doubt that most people today would recognize it as such. It is the view that comes from that strange spiritual tradition that culminates in a God who doesn’t make slaves but rather becomes one. 

Rev. Robert Barron holds the Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/ Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill. His Web site is www.wordonfire.org.

Comments

victor | 9/8/2009 - 12:48pm

Egad! Ever hear of the phrase "Spoiler alert"? If not, research it now, please. Also, the verb tenses in the third paragraph seem a bit wonky.

Nic | 9/4/2009 - 4:43pm

I must say, that I did enjoy this movie and your response is great.  As far as recommending it goes, it's perhaps one of the most violent films I've ever seen and for that reason alone, I most likely can't recommend it to everyone.  The language was also quite harsh.

Great review!  Keep up the great work!

John | 9/4/2009 - 2:02pm

This is an excellent topic and one which all readers of America, Commonweal, and National Catholic Reporter ought to take to heart....

One, do I also suscribe to HPR, The Human Life Report, OSV, National Catholic Register, and First Things. If not, is it because I consider "the other side" "the other" that's not worth my time or effort to understand?

When was the last time I took time to hang out with the pro-life representative of the parish/diocese/neighborhood? Do I know where the home for un-wed mom's is located? Have I visited the local call center of Birth-right? If not, why not? Are they "the other" to me?

When was the last time I went out of my way to have a meal and a real heart to heart conservation with a self-described "Conservative" voter who has been Republican their entire lives? If I can't stand to discuss politics and religion with "those people" is this because I consider them beneath my dignity or so hidebound to their views that they don't deserve my no doubt superior reasoning for my beliefs and opinions?

If I voted for Obama, what do I think of when someone identifies themselves as a "Blue-Dog" Democrat? Am I curious or angry at the mention of their 'moderation'? For that matter, what do I think of people who are wealthier than I? Or those young Gen. Xers with their big home-schooled families who fill whole pews at the parish..do I critique their old fashioned fashion sense, wonder why they're having so many kids or driving that full size van or SUV rather than driving 2 or 3 smaller compacts? Are the "the other" to me?

How about the Charismatic renewal folk, the Opus Dei, Regnum Christi, Focolarii, or Legion of Mary people. Are they "other" to me or do I routinely hang around after mass to meet with them and genuinely ask them their opinions on things.

Seems to me Heigel and friends didn't reveal anything new to the world of Philosophy - the concept of other tribes, nations, and groups being considered alternatively either as friends or threats has been around for ages. The question though is whether we are self-aware of our often times unconscious bias and presumption about what they believe exactly (as opposed to our charicatures of their beliefs) and how they live among themselves (again, opposed to our presumptions).

Here in Detroit area friends have begun organizing "prayer breakfasts" between partisans across the theological and ideological spectrum. It's most refreshing to actually meet committed folk on "the other side" and hear them out over waffles and pancakes.

We must (IMHO) not only tolerate but love all people.... but we don't owe this same tolerance to their ideas or practices... those might be healthy or harmful, sane or insane. So let's argue or put on the table what we believe and why we believe it and attempt to persuade each other with words as best we can.... while respecting the dignity of each other as children of the same God.

Eric Bohn | 9/4/2009 - 9:37am

In Phil. 2:7-8 the right word is "servant", not "slave".  Don't you think it's hypocritical to say that God would become something that he tells his people to avoid?  This reminds me of what a local parish priest said at mass: that the roman collar was a reminder of a condition of slavery imposed upon the ancient people of Israel because they were bound in chains by collars worn about the neck.  He was drawing a relation between the priesthood and slavery!  He should have said something about the box that covers the Adam's apple.

"It is the view that comes from that strange spiritual tradition that culminates in a God who doesn’t make slaves but rather becomes one. "

Which could be why the alien makes a miraculous escape!

Eric Bohn | 9/4/2009 - 9:35am

In Phil. 2:7-8 the right word is "servant", not "slave".  Don't you think it's hypocritical to say that God would become something that he tells his people to avoid?  This reminds me of what a local parish priest said at mass: that the roman collar was a reminder of a condition of slavery imposed upon the ancient people of Israel because they were bound in chains by collars worn about the neck.  He was drawing a relation between the priesthood and slavery!!!  He should have said something about the box that covers the Adam's apple.


"It is the view that comes from that strange spiritual tradition that culminates in a God who doesn’t make slaves but rather becomes one. "


Which could be why the alien makes a miraculous escape!

James | 9/2/2009 - 11:35am

Intriguing perspective, Fr. Barron.    The regrettable new Tarentino film, Inglorious Bastards  (I know, "wrong" spelling) seems to be - I won't see it - the philosophical opposite of District 9.  The Jewish soldiers aspire to be, and become, "masters" -  they butcher and bludgeon just like the old masters, and most appallingly, herd nazis into a building and set it afire.  I have read that people cheer in theaters when this happens...

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