District Nine, Richard Rive’s Buckingham Palace, District Six

 

Richard Rive's novel provides entertaining background to Richard Rive's dynamic new film.

Richard Rive's novel provides entertaining background to Richard Rive's dynamic new film.

 

Dunreith, Aidan, Diane and I saw District Nine on Saturday.

The tale about what happens when an evil, multi-national munitions-selling corporation and the post-apartheid government start to remove the 1.8 million aliens who live in a segregated area near with the aliens’ ship landed a generation earlier has got all kinds of fun: memorable special effects; plenty of blood- and alien innard-splattering action; and a touching if predictable love story between seemingly ineffectual government agent Wikus Van der Merwe and his wife Tania. 

It also has plenty of social commentary.

The Peter Jackson-produced film is based on events surrounding South Africa’s District Six, which during the apartheid area was a vibrant,  mutli-racial but largely mixed-race or “Colored” community that was razed in the mid-60s under the notorious Group Areas Act.  

The late novelist Richard Rive wrote an entertaining novel, Buckingham Palace, District Six, about what was destroyed during the forced relocations that provide much of the basis for the current film. 

The palace in the book’s title refers to a row of five houses in which there is plenty of action and little, if any, payment of rent.  

Two of the major characters are Zoot September, the ringleader of a group of men who evoke John Steinbeck’s cast of characters in Cannery Row, and Mary, the leader of a group of prostitutes, all of whom seem to possess a heart of gold.  

A District Six native, Rich intersperses the action between the characters with three authorial reflections that take place over the course of 15 years starting in 1955 and that tell the story of the neighborhood’s heyday, impending destruction and downfall.  

A character whose dignity ascends as the book progresses is Katzen.  

For much of the book, he is a hapless landlord who tries unsuccessfully to collect rent and who is often the butt of jokes.  During a meeting to discuss what will happen to the area in the face of the proposed removals, however, he reveals that he is a German Jew who fled the Nazi regime and who will not comply with this different application of treating people of different races like untermenschen. 

Unfortunately, his son, a prosperous Johannesburg lawyer, has no such personal memory and feels no compunction to honor his father’s commitment. 

The palace is destroyed, the residents are dispersed and few physical reminders of the vital community are left behind. 

Zoot, who stands out among the cast as having a political sensibility, prepares to take up the struggle while also emphasizing the importance of passing the story of the district onto subsequent generations. 

To some degree his desires have materialized.

A museum exists to honor the people of District Six during its heyday and a small number of residents have returned to the area from which they were forcibly removed. 

It’s by no means what it was, but it does help keep the story and memory of this area alive.  

Jackson’s film, which seems ripe for a sequel, helps do this, too.  For those wanting to learn more about the film’s background, Rive’s novel is a fine place to start.

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