Hollywood tends to view Africans in one of two ways: faceless, formless ciphers who litter the street as corpses in a war the Western world has no interest in understanding, or faceless, formless ciphers who speak in homilies and ooze decency out of their pores — the noble savage of old. Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond is the rare bird that insists on both; asking us to accept Djimon Hounsou in what must be his twenty-eight performance as a rage-filled saint who has no real identity save trying to find a lost family member, as well as dozens of unknown actors falling from buildings, being gunned down as they scramble for cover, and doing the dance of death as bullets fly, mortars explode, and vehicles overturn at every conceivable angle. It’s Zwick trying to have it all: tell a slam-bang story, pack it with death-defying stunts and heart-stopping action, but add a little armchair liberalism to take away the twinge of guilt at watching black people die en masse. In reality, the film is little more than a twist on Rambo III, where a “cause” is shoehorned into wall-to-wall pyrotechnics in order to justify the mindless bloodletting. Add a little romance with Tiger Beat graduate Leonardo DiCaprio, and you have the sort of picture that appeals to the chicks and dicks, always the recipe studio bosses are looking for in this awards-heavy season.
It’s a worthy tale, after all: exploring so-called “conflict diamonds” in Sierra Leone, a poor African nation torn apart by the usual suspects of civil war, tribal animosity, and unrelenting greed. DiCaprio is Danny Archer, a Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) by birth who lost his parents as a young man, and is now trading precious stones for arms, which are then delivered to the appropriate warring factions. As expected, he is devoid of conscience solely to allow for his redemption in the final act, as he comes to associate his business with death and destruction. There are other characters about, but once again — and I do tire of saying this — the madness of the continent can only be explored through white eyes, which makes any conscience the film aspires to a colossal joke. That fair-skinned angle is tempered somewhat by the presence of Solomon Vandy (Hounsou), the one-dimensional African in question, though he spends nearly all of the film being led around by Danny, as if on a string. The two are a team, of course, though they start off using each other for a respective end: Solomon to find his family, and Danny to locate a pink diamond initially found by Solomon, who then hid it in the countryside. The diamond is worth millions, and it will allow Danny to leave Africa forever, which is another way of saying that he will die before realizing his dream. Anyone who talks of “moving on” in the movies always has a freshly dug grave ready and waiting to receive his corpse.
Also in the mix is Maddy (Jennifer Connelly), a hot reporter who exists solely to lecture Danny (and therefore, the audience) about the hideous nature of blood diamonds. She’s all business, you see, so she’s also required to tell us that she can’t keep a boyfriend and has no real home except the next seedy motel. She and Danny exchange knowing looks, but thankfully, we are spared the expected sex scene in some dark hut where their sweaty bodies fade in and out while tribal beats hum on the soundtrack. Such music does in fact play throughout the movie, however, proving yet again that Africa means nothing to white society unless the reference points can be found in The Lion King. Maddy wants the story, as all reporters do, but one wonders how far she would have gotten had she been dumpy and lacking a great rack. At one point, Danny even turns over his “little black book” of contacts and sources, which will likely win Maddy a Pulitzer Prize. The lesson here, of course, is that newspapers and magazines should never send the physically unattractive into the field, as they will blow the story and hole up in the hotel eating frosting out of the can. And just like the other supporting players, she has nothing to offer save clichéd mannerisms and symbolic gestures. If she were real, she’d have depth, and then the audience wouldn’t know what to think.
There is a story to tell about this region, and I was fascinated by the drafting of mere children into the rebel army (and how easily they were transformed into hardened killers), but it’s all window dressing; the expected visions of hell on earth that everyone claims to feel upset about, yet no one really understands (or wants to). Sure, we are lectured about our lust for what is in fact not a rare stone at all (the supply is cleverly manipulated), as well as the sickness of young brides for storybook weddings with all the trimmings, but are we really expected to transform our own lives after being so damned entertained? Any movie that highlights the female narcissism that tears American manhood to shreds on a daily basis is at least partially praiseworthy, but again, I’m not entirely sure that Zwick means it. We’d like to think that we’ve made huge strides in how we view Africans (the Tarzan films of old being most representative of the past’s overt displays of racism), but as much damage is done when we sentimentalize them out of all proportion, instead of pushing the idea that they aren’t fully human. A character like Solomon, for example, is dignified, tough, and proud (as opposed to weak and stupid), but simply because the audience identifies with this one man (made flesh through tears and his love of family), doesn’t mean the rest of “his people” don’t suffer in his wake. What about the far more powerful image of the armed black man? The sinister brute who chops off hands and shoots up children with drugs? In this way, it could be argued that Solomon is the Sidney Poitier of our time; a man thoughtless bigots can live with because he doesn’t really threaten the established order.
Again, this is a very well-made movie; no expense was spared, everyone gave it their all, and the editing and direction were both slick and inspired. Hack work is always easier to dismiss, of course, but quality filmmaking makes it more difficult to pull the trigger on criticism. We’ve been seduced by beautiful people, stunning locales, and even a bit of social work along the way. We hate those nasty diamond traders, want Solomon and Danny to escape with their lives, and we hope against hope that Solomon’s brainwashed son returns to the fold. We just want peace, dammit, and can’t understand why violence and war must interrupt our lovely night out. Still, talent must always be held more accountable, and it would be a shame to confuse good intentions with a satisfying result, even if we feel like we’ve eaten our vegetables. Blood Diamond is an old-fashioned adventure, not a Nobel Prize nominee, and the diamond trade is no more vetted than the psychology of megalomania in a James Bond picture. It’s a mere hook — a plot device — and we’re suckers for assuming that a somber post-script grants a movie importance. And when Solomon shows up in a suit and tie for some UN-style conference at the end, we’re meant to be inspired (oh good, change is on the way!), but instead, we feel the brunt of what is actually being peddled: here’s an “authentic” voice, an African, to tell us the real story so that we may feel better about ourselves later. Only we don’t get to hear what he says, which is just as well, as we’d likely hear what we’ve already seen. You know, how a white man died so a black man might be free.