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Movies/TV Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

A Bloody World of Diamonds
By By Esther Editor and Film Critic
Dec 8, 2006, 09:23

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The violence of “Blood Diamond," the new movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou, is barbarous but cannot be accused of being over-the-top. The depicted civil war era in Sierra Leone during the 1990’s produced at least 75,000 deaths of primarily civilians, as well as shocking atrocities—most notably gang rapes of girls and amputations of limbs of children and infants. Often these acts were committed by child soldiers abducted and brainwashed by a rebel group calling itself the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), funded by diamond smuggling and backed by the corrupt government of Charles Taylor in neighboring Liberia. Almost half of the country’s population of 4.5 million people, including those mutilated during the conflict, was forced to leave their homes for refugee camps.

While open warfare has ended, the RUF maintains in control of what it most wanted: Sierra Leone’s rich diamond-producing rural districts. The country’s diamonds, known for their fine gem quality, continue to be smuggled into Liberia for export to Europe, where they become a part of the global multi-billion-dollar diamond industry. These diamonds are known as “conflict diamonds” or “blood diamonds,” which give the movie its name.

In “Blood Diamond,” caught in this war era is Solomon Vandy (Hounsou), a fisherman of the Mende people who lives with his wife Jassie, son Dia as well as a daughter and infant. Soon after we meet Solomon, he is fleeing from trucks, filled with RUF soldiers, barreling down a dusty road near his village. While he immediately springs into action and spirits his family to safety, he is abducted by the militia group and forced to work in a diamond work camp, where he unearths a large, rare diamond.

When Solomon is jailed after a raid on the camp, word of his discovery reaches the ear of a South African mercenary-turned diamond smuggler named Danny Archer (DiCaprio), who immediately starts to calculate how he can make the diamond his own. When Solomon leaves jail and finds out that his family is missing, he and Danny become locked into a deal that will get Solomon back to his family and get Danny to the prized diamond.

The uneasy alliance between the two men is handled with some care by director Ed Zwick (“Glory”) but it still degenerates, in many scenes, into a master-darkie relationship. Danny, obviously more experienced in war and killing, takes the lead to save Solomon during several battles. On back roads and in the bush of his own country, Solomon seems lost and is led by an outsider. Solomon’s peaceful demeanor is rendered as somewhat childlike in some scenes and downright silly in others. When, for example, he calls out to who he thinks is his son in a passing truck filled with heavily armed RUF soldiers, he reveals his and Danny’s hiding place and risks their lives. In response, Danny warns him that he will kill him if he ever does such a thing again.

In the 1980’s Indiana Jones-“Romancing the Stone”-“Jewel of the Nile” genre, there was, usually coupled with the White hero, a White woman who routinely did stupid things that the White hero had to correct in order to save both of them in a land filled with dark people. To a lesser extent, Hounsou fills this problematic role in “Blood Diamond,” though his actions are not for comedic effect. (They don’t make me laugh at least.) While Solomon is obviously passionate about saving his family, the story tells us that Danny—an obvious racist but one with some conscience—is Solomon’s only ticket to survival.

DiCaprio is captivating in his role, as was Matt Dillon as the racist cop in “Crash.” These films ask us to see something good in bigots, to see that they, too, have their positive qualities. In “Blood Diamond,” this humanizing of Archer stands in stark contrast to the savage Black RUF rebels and the less detailed portrait of Solomon. Zwick knows how to draw us into White characters, like he did on his beloved and critically acclaimed TV shows, “Thirtysomething” and “Once and Again.” He needs more work on Black characters. (He didn’t write the script for “Glory.”)

Zwick deserves credit for tackling this difficult issue that is of immense importance to Africa and the whole world. And he deserves credit for not allowing Hollywood to make it into even more of an “Indiana Jones” type of movie. To get everyone’s attention for a story about Africa, “Blood Diamond” needed a big star like DiCaprio. But, in getting the star, the movie seems locked into tired script elements that Hollywood won’t yet abandon.

Esther Iverem is founder of and author of a forthcoming book on Black film, We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006 (Thunder’s Mouth Press, April 2007).

Related stories of interest at
Lessons in South Africa
The heart-breaking stories of “Ithuteng—(Never Stop Learning),” a documentary playing on HBO Family, remind us of that not every story of post-apartheid South Africa is a success story. By profiling several troubled young people aided by community activist Jackey Maarohanye, it chronicles the generation growing up during South Africa’s difficult post-Apartheid transition, which has been marked by increased crime, violence and soaring numbers of HIV-AIDS cases.

Silverdocs: South Africa
This year's Silverdocs: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival in Silver Spring, Md. featured work from South Africa, including “His Big, White Self,” a close-up portrait of African Nazi Party (AWB) leader Eugene Terreblanche, and “Beyond Freedom: The South African Journey,” a mixed-media work employing animation and other cinematic techniques.

World AIDS Day: '3 Needles'
A coastal village in South Africa is the setting for one of three stories told in “Three Needles,” a fable-like meditation on the AIDS pandemic opening in limited release and premiering on Showtime. By Esther Iverem

The Making of a ‘Terrorist’
Derek Luke delivers a searing performance as Patrick Chamusso, who was transformed from an apolitical yes-man to a militant fighter for the liberation of South Africa’s 25 million Blacks.

Idi Amin in Living Fiction
“The Last King of Scotland,” a story about the brutal Ugandan leader Idi Amin, washes over the viewer like a tsunami of political turbulence, violence and murderous madness. It is all fiction written by a White man. Should that matter? By Esther Iverem

© Copyright 2006

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