Character: Wikus Van der Merwe
Source: District 9 (2009)
Directior: Neill Blomkamp
Entry Author: Adam Kelley
The central character of the film District 9, Wikus Van der Merwe, a white, South African male, begins the narrative as a representative of the powerful multinational munitions corporation (MNU). His role is to systematically relocate an entire ‘district’ of an alien species that, after mysteriously stranding itself on Earth, had been forced by the South African government into a ghetto. After an accident during a routine trip to serve an eviction notice Wikus is exposed to an alien chemical that causes his body to react violently. Throughout the course of the film the chemical causes Wikus’s body to gradually transform into the alien species. As an alien-human hybrid Wikus’s body becomes a precious commodity to MNU and an unlikely ally to the alien Wikus was serving an eviction to when he was exposed to the chemical. After aiding the alien, named “Christopher”, in an escape from Earth, Wikus is left stranded, wholly alien, ostracized from his wife and all of human society, and awaiting Christopher’s return in order to be ‘cured’.
Wikus is not a sympathetic protagonist. He is portrayed as a banal bureaucrat that shows little compassion to the impoverished aliens he is charged with relocating. The pseudo-documentary style of the film adds to the banal realism of Wikus as a white-collar corporate lackey who does not hesitate to leverage his authority over the marginalized aliens. He demonstrates a kind of working field knowledge of ‘prawn’, a derogatory term for the otherwise unnamed alien species, behavior and family structure. In utilizing his knowledge of the alien species as a means of controlling them, Wikus functions allegorically as an orientalist British colonial official. Thus, he begins the film in a place of authority, and he executes the duty assigned to him with calculated disdain and apathy toward the subjects at his mercy.
After finding a suspicious canister during an invasive home inspection, Wikus is exposed to a black substance that makes him immediately ill. Throughout the rest of the day he becomes increasingly sick and one of his hands begins to mutate. Wikus tries to hide his condition from his wife and coworkers but it is soon discovered that Wikus’s body is merging with alien DNA. His liminal biological status makes his body a valuable commodity to MNU, whose ultimate goal is to utilize the powerful alien weaponry that is somehow tied to alien biology in such a way that humans cannot normally interact with it. Wikus, however, can now use this technology, and MNU decides to dissect Wikus alive in order to hopefully harness his unique biological capability to interact with alien weaponry. Thus, due to his ‘mixed’ status Wikus becomes a helpless subject of the same powerful corporation he was once employed by.
Wikus escapes from the operating table and becomes a fugitive. As a massive liability to the company, Wikus must be contained. To slander his reputation Wikus is portrayed in the media as having sexual intercourse with the alien species that caused him to be “contaminated with an alien disease”. This portrays Wikus as bringing about his own medical condition due to his own supposedly depraved behavior, as opposed to him being merely a victim of circumstance. Public opinion is turned against him, and having no means by which to explain himself and expose MNU, he becomes a social pariah and out of desperation he flees to ‘District 9’ for shelter.
Ironically, Wikus becomes more sympathetic the more he becomes alien. Near the films conclusion Wikus is confronted by a former associate who calls Wikus a “Half-breed piece of shit” as he is about to shoot him. Wikus is saved by a group of aliens who tear the other man armed man apart and leave Wikus unscathed. The film ends ambiguously: Christopher escapes earth but a lone alien, presumably Wikus, is assumed dead by his friends and left to fend for himself.
Character: Danny Lopez
Source Text: De La Pena, Matt. Mexican White Boy. New York: Delacorte Press, 2008. Print.
Entry Author: James Tyler
Sixteen-year-old Danny Lopez is half-Mexican and lives in comfortable San Diego county; the son of a white mother and an absent father, who walked out on the family when he was a child. Confused over the concept of his own identity, he wonders why his father left the family for Mexico and whether the motivation involved embarrassment over having a biracial son. The novel follows Danny’s experiences on a visit to National City, Mexico, in search of his biological father in Ensenada.
The only other Hispanics Danny has any familiarity with are Mexican people who “do under-the-table yard work and hide out in the hills because they’re in San Diego illegally” (De La Pena, 2). As much as Danny feels like an outsider being a biracial American in San Diego, he feels equally out of sorts in National City, if not more, because he is not fluent in the Spanish language. And, what’s more, not only is he described as “a shade darker than all the white kids at his private school,” but whenever he comes to National City, “where his dad grew up, where all his aunts and uncles and cousins still live – he feels pale. A full shade lighter. Albino almost” (De La Pena, 3).
Hispanics/Latinos are the fastest growing minority within the United States and are expected to constitute a sound majority within several generations, so much so that political scientists have labeled the demographic, “the sleeping giant.” As such, it is almost impossible to define such a demographically diverse population within one subgroup. Class, Nationality, Ethnicity, Biological Race, Politics, and Culture/Language all factor into the definition of what it means to be a Hispanic/Latino. As such, the identity crisis experience by Danny is not at all surprising or unusual.
The literary device De La Pena employs which symbolically unites such a diverse group is Basebal. A skilled pitcher, Danny has a proportionately difficult time succeeding in his favorite sport, as much as he has trouble straightening out his identity conflict, because despite his talent, he is cut from the Baseball team over his lack of focus. But, his first moment of true belonging in Mexico comes while observing the Mexican kids playing Baseball. “He’d give anything to be out there playing instead of standing here watching,” De La Pena writes. “Nobody plays stickball in Leucadia. Why don’t the white kids play stickball? He wonders. Maybe because they have real baseball fields…Or maybe they’ve just never thought of it.” This moment is also how he comes into contact with his first close Mexican friend, the half-black “negrito,” Uno, even if his first contact with Uno is by getting knocked out.
As a Hispanic-American who was raised in a predominantly white suburban environment, the individual obstacles presented to Danny Lopez, in terms of identity exploration, were so readily identifiable to me that at times it was frightening. De La Pena very well could have gone the traditional route of making Danny the stereotypical “angry half-breed” full of a frustration he can only express in brute violence. On the contrary, Danny Lopez is not only a sensitive character, but a startlingly troubled one, who takes his frustration out on himself. From the beginning the near-mute Danny is struggling with a form of Depression, which he copes with by cutting his wrists. While I have never reached this level of emotional depravity, the conveyed feeling of being “between worlds,” due to language barriers, skin color, or class differences, is such a familiar, relatable emotion that someone being led to that form of self-abuse by it is almost unsurprising to me. With any luck, novels such as this will encourage a greater dialogue and discourse regarding teens with mixed identities and the challenges they face, so that such heartbreaking self-harm will be a thing of the past.