Freeman has the instrument to approximate Madiba, to be sure, at least his cadences. What really has me worried is Damon as Pienaar. No actor in the English-speaking world outside South Africa has ever been able to capture English as spoken by an Afrikaner. New Zealander Sam Neill came closest as Sandra Laing’s father in the recent “Skin”. Leonard DiCaprio had his moments in “Blood Diamonds” but could not sustain them and a lot of the time what he managed was little better than parody.
None of this is an issue in “District 9”, the instant sci-fi cult classic that opened in America on Friday. Working on a relative shoestring — $30 million — South African born director Neill Blomkamp cast South Africans as South Africans. Not only did it save him a lot of money which he was able to put into giving the cinema verite style movie its astounding look and feel, but, surprise, it turns out that South Africans can play themselves really well. In Sharlto Copley, who plays the antiheroic hero Wikus Van Der Merwe, South Africa has its very own Sasha Baron Cohen of Borat fame. Copley is an accidental actor. In his day job he’s a producer. Blomkamp took a brilliant chance.
Now there are going to be some who are offended by “District 9” and who will harrumph that it does not do a great deal to promote the South African brand: space aliens have the dumb luck to become stranded over contemporary Johannesburg and are treated to industrial strength apartheid. The setting makes the township in “Tsotsi”, another great but gritty South African film, look like one of Johannesburg’s leafy northern suburbs. This is not the South Africa of SA Tourism.
Removed from their ship and unable to return to it, the aliens are confined to a cross between a concentration camp and a shanty town, reviled as “prawns” — the film’s n-word reflecting the aliens’ crustacean exteriors — and preyed upon by, wait for it, Nigerians, who sell them their staple diet, pet food, at criminally inflated prices. The authorities, some sort of public-private partnership calling itself MNU, short for Multi-National United, decide they have to be forcibly removed. Copley’s Van Der Merwe, the archetype of an eagerly gormless apartheid-era bureaucrat, is put in charge of the operation through nepotism, and from there the plot unfolds.
Reading mostly flattering US reviews after seeing the film, I was struck by the absence of an essential word. Satire. “District 9” is very much in the Swiftian tradition. Very dark, yes. Very close to the bone. But also, at moments, shockingly funny. The humour inherent in the lead character’s name will mostly lost on the audiences unfamiliar with South Africa. To get the joke, it also helps to have known people like Van Der Merwe. In many ways he reminded me of the late Piet Koornhof, a famous implementer of apartheid in posts such as Minister of Cooperation and Development – pure Orwell — in which he oversaw the removal of thousands of black people areas declared white.