This was originally written for the online magazine Christ and Pop Culture. My second draft, and the one published by CAPC, was different enough that I now had two, stand-alone articles on District 9. You can read the CAPC article here.
You’ll miss it without subtitles, but the very first line of District 9 is about family.
“Attention, Mr. Hayes, your wife is waiting at the station.”
It’s simple background chatter to establish the atmosphere of the MNU corporate building of the opening shot, and it’s overshadowed by the protagonist Wikus van de Merwe mentioning his own wife, Tania, just seconds later. However, the mention of family in this specific context, in that of waiting, is a stronger overarching theme of District 9 as a whole.
Every sympathetic or heroic character in the movie is defined by their family and how they treat them. Wikus starts abandoning his strong sense of self-preservation for the sake of returning to Tania. Tania herself choses to believe her husband over her father, who wants to exploit Wikus for the sake of corporate growth. One of Fundiswa Mhlanga’s first lines, Wikus’ coworker who ends up exposing MNU’s abuse of the aliens and of Wikus, is concern about his own family. And of course, there’s Christopher Johnson, our alien lead, who is fighting to save his people but especially his own son. In contrast are our villains, who willing to exploit their own family or others’ for swift results.
Our villains are impatient. Our heroes wait.
For Tania, the waiting is an illustration of how the new family born from a marriage is central to the couple. It’s the woman’s take on Genesis 2:24 – “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife…” Throughout the movie, Tania is constantly forced to choose between Wikus and her father, the latter of whom actively demeans her husband and lies to her in order to control the situation around him. In the end, she chooses to believe Wikus, and the movie ends on her willingness to wait for him.
It is unfortunate that the sole, significant woman in this movie is relegated to such a passive role, but there is a degree of power in her waiting. “They took all his stuff away for the investigation, and I made them bring it all back,” she says, standing in a room with Wikus’ possessions reclaimed. Despite the media attention and the pressure from her father, Tania is choosing to wait for Wikus on her terms.
Wikus himself actually starts out as a villain. While not as aggressive in the exploitation of the aliens as the films main antagonists, he is still an active participant in it. His most heinous actions are violence against alien families, first with the gleeful killing of a shack full of eggs then with the attempted kidnapping of Christopher Johnson’s son for the sake of blackmail.
When an accident begins to turn him into one of the aliens, his impatience to return to Tania emboldens him to take risks, and we even see Ephesians 5:28 taken to an extreme, “So husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself.” A man who has demonstrated a particularly strong sense of self-preservation, Wikus at one point attempts to chop off his own aliened arm for the sake of returning to her. However, this act would have been ultimately futile, as both the audience and Wikus know. While it’s a desperation born out of love, his impatience here only results in more damage.
Additionally, this impatience also leads him to betray Christopher twice over for a swift resolution to his problem. The first comes as Wikus learns that his transformation back to human will take longer than he wants, because Christopher’s people are dying, and their plight has taken priority. As Christopher is reiterating his promise that he will return to help Wikus and asking him to be patient, Wikus strikes him in the head. Later, as it seems all hope for Wikus’ return to humanity and for the aliens’ freedom is lost, Wikus escapes his captors and despite having the power to save Christopher from his, Wikus runs. He even urges the MNU mercenaries to leave him be, as they have Christopher in his place.
Both of these betrayals are further acts of violence against families. They separate Christopher from his son and leaves him in the hands of a man who takes delight in killing and torturing aliens.
Fortunately, Wikus’ transformation also prompts him to see things from the aliens’ perspective, particularly the yearning of Christopher and his son to see their home again. Eventually, it’s the family aspect that brings him back around, quite literally.
“I’m gonna get you to your boy!” he says when he returns to save Christopher from execution. This act shifts Wikus from an untrustworthy ally to family for Christopher. Not family by blood, but deed.
Then one said to [Jesus], “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.”
But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! (Matthew 12:47-49)
Wikus fully turns from villain to hero when he chooses to wait for his family and for Christopher’s.
While Tania, Wikus, and Christopher’s families are front and center, you might have missed on your first viewing that Fundiswa even has a family. It’s another line that’s easy to miss amongst all the ad-libbing and improv in the movie, but it’s there. As MNU employees are preparing to enter District 9 to evict the aliens, Fundiswa expresses concern that he doesn’t receive a bulletproof vest during the evacuation. Unlike Wikus at this point in the movie, it’s not just a matter of self-preservation, it’s because “I’m just concerned about my family”
This is also in contrast to Tania’s father, who berates on Wikus about the company in a family setting, an act that echoes those mentioned in Matthew 15:4-6, where Jesus criticized a practice of that day that put social standing and wealth before family:
For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.
Fundiswa on the other hand, without regard to wealth or social standing, puts family first, even in a company setting.
Another side of this, the willingness to turn away from family for the sake of doing the right thing (Luke 9:61-62, 14:25-27) is the other half of the discussion that Fundiswa brings to the table, but I cannot with good conscience follow through on it. Like Tania’s passivity, this is another place where District 9 lacks tact, though it does avoid falling into the same trap as the film’s racist depictions of Nigerians. Fundiswa is the only sympathetic black character in the movie, and he is separated from his family through an arrest for exposing MNU’s corruption. While this was a movie made in South Africa, a country whose social climate I am only passingly familiar with, I live in the United States, where arrests – not all of them just – are an all-too-common issue for black families. As such, it would show a lack of tact on my own part if I were to portray Fundiswa’s arrest and departure from his family as something positive, even if he had done the right thing.
What we do see in Fundiswa is a stronger comparison to Christopher Johnson than Wikus has. Both Fundiswa and Christopher are good men whose families are put at risk because they are a threat to the corrupt MNU. At the end of the movie, Fundiswa’s wait for his trial and thus the return to his family has only begun, but for Christopher, the wait is almost over at last.
While the other characters demonstrate the virtues of waiting, Christopher Johnson’s arc demonstrates the rewards of it.
Here, we must step back and look at family from a broader perspective. Christopher’s part of the story does have intimate family present in his son, which allows us to see the personal investment Christopher has in his people’s future overall. His people, the aliens, are his family. And he’s been waiting for their freedom for over two decades.
Consider Abraham and Sarah, who were promised a nation from their children but had to wait for so long that their hope was sorely tested. We see Christopher reach this point of despair at about the film’s midpoint. In this loss of hope, he tries to convince his son to accept life on Earth. The promise seems beyond him now, and he’s gearing himself to settle for less than what he and his family were owed. But even in the middle of Sarah’s bitter laugh and Christopher’s despair, hope arrives again to the waiting, and the promise is assured.
During those two decades, Christopher’s wait was not a passive one. He acted and prepared for the moment that the promise of freedom would come to pass. Like Hannah, who prayed yearly for a son, Christopher’s gathering of fuel and repairing of the command module required dedication and patience. And like Hannah, who bore the prophet Samuel, these tasks would eventually provide the guidance needed to bring his family home. And like Simeon and the prophetess Anna, who were devout to Israel and to the Lord and saw their people’s salvation in a babe before they died, Christopher was carried away from Earth, assured of his family’s coming freedom.
Waiting in faith brings about promises. Brings about guidance. Brings about salvation.
The resolution of District 9 is to say, “Wait.” Fundiswa is about to go on trial. Tania and Wikus are separated for three years, their marriage held together on nothing but promises and a metal flower. Christopher is on his way to his homeworld while the rest of his people are trapped on earth. Not even the audience gets to see the future of these characters.
District 9 ends with everyone still waiting for family, but all of them are waiting in faith.
…not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. (Hebrews 11: 13b-14)