I've seen a lot of blog posts in various places in the leftoverse dedicated to the twin assertions that District 9 is awesome and that it's hella racist. I'm inclined to agree with both of them, but I think on the second point it's a little more complicated.
The film's relationship to apartheid is very very strange. Much publicity has been generated by District 9's gritty realism and apartheid allegory... it's inspired by a real event-- the clearing out of a ghetto in the twilight of the apartheid years-- that the film's writer and director lived through. But at the same time, the film never mentions apartheid. it takes place in present day South Africa in a world that is basically exactly like ours except for the fact that there's a huge fucking UFO that's been floating of J-Burg since the early 1980s and a ghetto filled with grasshopper like aliens. And yet, despite the fact that it exists in a post-apartheid South Africa rife with class and race strife, it never mentions apartheid. I have no idea what to make of this other than I think it was a curious narrative choice. I don't find it racist, just weird.
Where there's little doubt in my mind that the film traffics in some really seriously offensive stereotypes is in its portrait of "The Nigerians" who, besides being gangsters, are cannibal witch doctor primitive idiot bloodthirsty gangsters. Universally. They're just collectively called "The Nigerians". It's pretty loathsome stuff.
It's worth noting, of course, that the movie is also just in general downright misanthropic, and traffics in a blanket hatred of humanity. White people in the film are officious, greedy amoral thugs in power suits. Which is what makes this all more complicated. The movie has a very very dim view of human nature and an expansive view of human possibility and of the potential for redemption through suffering. Still, the view of whites in the film doesn't rely on (or traffic in) hundreds-of-years-old stereotypes of Africans that have been used to justify hundreds of years of oppression.
Don't get me wrong, I loved the movie, can't wait for the inevitable sequel. It's a smart, relevant thematically rich shoot-em-up, the kind of movie that summer movies should be. It's just both that and kinda racist at the same time.
The oddest racial critique I read of the film had to have been this one in Racialicious, which disliked that the aliens in the film aren't represented positively (to be fair as this quote will hopefully show, this isn't the substance of the racial critique in the post, just an issue the writer had with the film on a substantive level):
If you look at the film as an apartheid allegory, it has problems right off the bat. The aliens are loathsome, trash-eating vermin who fight endlessly, destroy property for no reason, and piss on their own homes, which isn’t a truthful or flattering allegorical comparison for actual black South Africans under apartheid. Apartheid is terrible because humans were denied rights. The “apartheid” of these aliens isn’t that terrible - it’s kind of justifiable, because they’re actually dangerous, violent and destructive. I think it would be a better allegory, and a more sophisticated movie, if the aliens weren’t unpleasant. If they were peaceful and kind, but the humans still demonized them, the film would be much more chilling; the horror would be “man’s inhumanity to lobster-man”, not “eew gross they eat pig heads!”
But to my knowledge, District 9 does not explicitly present itself as an apartheid allegory, and changing the nature of the aliens basically makes it a different movie, so I’m gonna give it a pass in this post (although I’m very open to hearing other people’s thoughts about the allegorical angle). I think the choice to make the aliens disgusting was mostly artistic license, designed to make the film’s tone and visuals more gritty and scary, rather than any attempt to actually be representative of black people oppressed by apartheid. So that wasn’t my problem with this film.
On simply a movie-watching level, the writer is dead wrong on this point. That the aliens are dangerous, violent, destructive and vulgar and yet deserving of rights and to be well-treated because they are sentient makes the movie far far far more interesting and far far far more radical in its war-on-terror era politics. Given that oppressive regimes such as Jim Crow in America, Apartheid in South Africa and the occupation in Palestine are all predicated on the "dangerous violent and destructive" stereotype of their inhabitants (blacks will rape white women, all Palestinians are rabid killers who want to slaughter Israeli civilians and push the Jews into the sea etc.) . What the film is doing is saying, "Okay, let's make all of those stereotypes true. Now what?" And where it ends up is "They're still deserving of rights." it's far more sophisticated than a film that pitted saintly oppressed victims against evil uni-dimensional oppressors. That to me is part of what makes the film so worthwhile. I will admit I was totally taken aback and how terrifying, strange, and unsympathetic (and yet how worth of decent treatment!) the aliens in the film are.