My brother recommended District 9 (directed by Neill Blomkamp) several years ago, saying that it’s an excellent alien science fiction movie with a difference. Popular cinematic culture often depicts aliens as powerful (good or bad); in this movie, they are the helpless ones.
I have to forewarn that it’s not for the faint-hearted, as it contains disturbing images of gore and atrocities. It has subtle socio-political messages related to discrimination against coloured people.
Curious to know the lessons I took away from such a heavy-handed movie?
Let’s dissect the two main characters – Wikus van de Merwe (human turned “prawn”, the derogatory term used to refer to the aliens in the movie) and Christopher Johnson (a “prawn”).
1. True Strength Lies Not In The Physical
The unassuming Wikus was chosen by his father-in-law and director of Multi-National United (mnu) – Piet Smit – to head the relocation of the aliens out of District 9.
As a father-in-law, Smit never really held Wikus in high regard. He even gave his consent for Wikus to be inhumanly harvested for alien parts so that alien weaponry could be operated.
When Wikus was on the run, Smit reminded his daughter Tania (Wikus’s wife) that Wikus had “never been strong”.
The prospect of Wikus slowly morphing into a prawn made him mortified of what was ahead.
Having lost everything, including his reputation, his thoughts of being reunited with Tania spurred him to face dangers from the military and the notorious gang leader, Obesandjo.
He never once gave up, and along with Christopher, just kept on going.
How do you measure “strong” leaders? Are your variables merely based on what you can see, i.e. their physical strength, the size of their pay check, or the number of their followers?
What about the ability to courageously face the unknown head-on and overcoming their fears?
2. Compassion Moves The Heart
What made Wikus (in his alien suit) turn back to save Christopher from being mercilessly killed by Colonel Koobus Venter and his men?
I believe it was his compassion toward the powerless, beaten-up Christopher. Perhaps, Wikus even recalled a conversation he overheard, with Christopher’s young son angrily protesting that he wanted to go back to their home planet, rather than be relocated to District 10.
We see humanity at its best when Wikus acted as a shield for Christopher from the unceasing attack from the military to get Christopher closer to the ship.
Christopher initially didn’t want to leave Wikus in such a horrible shape but eventually relented after Wikus ‘ordered’ him to leave after going through all the troubles.
A compassionate leader may be just the vital key to unlock people’s hearts and minds. By showing a little compassion, you bring out the best in people to give their best in what they do.
Authors of Leading with Kindness William Baker and Michael O’Malley sums it well by saying that a transformational management with compassion, integrity and authenticity improves employee performance and retention.
As unsightly as the prawns look in the movie, you can’t help but to identify yourself with Christopher. The more the story unfolds, the more you empathise with him as human.
Christopher was just a regular dad hoping to provide the best for his young child, and trying desperately to leave our world to save his people.
He was honourable and meek in every sense of his actions, toward his own kind and humans.
He didn’t retaliate (unlike his other prawn friend who got himself killed for reacting in anger) when Wikus and mnu personnel came to serve the eviction notice.
Christopher honoured his word by not shooting at humans when both he and Wikus invaded the MNU headquarters to look for the canister that was needed to fuel the alien ship. In fact, throughout the movie, I think Wikus killed more humans (out of self-defence, mind you) than Christopher.
Christopher was restrained in his anger even after seeing how his people were atrociously used as specimens in mnu’s secret laboratory.
In today’s competitive environment, meekness is often the least desired quality in a leader – but it shouldn’t be.
Look at the exemplary leadership of Abraham Lincoln and you’ll see that meekness is the virtue of a victor, not the vanquished. It is power under control.
In an article by Bret L. Simmons, he says that meek leaders are systems thinkers, and they carefully consider the ‘big picture’ of all their actions and responses.
Against the gloomy backdrop in District 9, the unifying trait is love and hope.
For Wikus, after morphing fully into a prawn, he kept hope alive by sculpting flower out of scrap metal and leaving it on Tania’s porch.
His love for his wife remains strong. The flower was a reminder of their good days when he used to make her homemade gifts.
For Christopher, it was a father’s love that kept him going. Recognising him as a man (or alien) of his word, I believe he will honour his promise to return after three years to help ‘fix’ Wikus.
What about you? What is keeping you from giving up hope in the areas you are now facing great challenges?
(n) Lay Hsuan is a storyteller, writer and content curator with Leaderonomics, a social enterprise dedicated to transforming developing nations through leadership development by growing people into leaders and building communities of love. While penning this article, the song that played in the writer’s head was “Love will keep us alive” by The Eagles.