Good morning, this ain’t Vietnam, still
People lose hands, legs, arms for real.
Little was known of Sierra Leone,
And how it connects to the diamonds we own.
—Kanye West, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)”
Blood Diamond means well. Equal parts earnest and muddled, it has done some good work before its release, bringing the persistent problem of conflict diamonds back into the U.S. news cycle. But the movie itself can’t seem to get out of its own way, relying on melodramatic clichés to make complex political observations.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, Michael Sheen, Arnold Vosloo, Kagiso Kuypers, David Harewood
US theatrical: 8 Dec 2006 (General release)
The film’s emotional focus is split between two men, living on what might as well be different planets in 1999. This even though both are currently residing in Sierra Leone, where war rages between government forces and the Revolutionary United Front (R.U.F.), both funded illicitly, with arms traded for diamonds and militias made up of abducted, traumatized children.
Danny (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a calculating, unaffiliated, Zimbabwe-born solider of fortune named Danny (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a Mende fisherman in Sierra Leone, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou). Danny lost his parents to terrible violence when he was a boy (his description of their deaths suggests he was traumatized, especially when he ends his story with “Boo-hoo, right?”). Now, at 30something, he can’t imagine having a family of his own. In the opposite corner, Solomon is a devoted husband and father of three, hardworking and determined that his young son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) will complete his education and become a doctor, not a mender of nets like him.
The film lays out the men’s very separate experiences by cutting between them and also Antwerp, where the G8 is meeting to discuss the role of conflict diamonds in the war in Sierra Leone. The politicians, including the sanctimonious-sounding Ambassador Walker (Stephen Collins), explain some of this background, and congratulate European diamond dealers—here, the odiously named Van De Kaap (Marius Weyers) and Simmons (Michael Sheen)—for agreeing to do the right thing (that is, not deal in blood diamonds, which they will do anyway, despite appearances of agreements).
Within minutes, you see where this is going. Danny and Solomon’s stories will converge, such that the white man will learn valuable moral lessons from his new black friend. Danny’s arrested for smuggling and tossed in jail, where he overhears a bit of Solomon’s story and becomes intrigued. Solomon’s story is, of course, much more complicated than Danny can fathom, but you see the essential points: his family is dispersed during an attack on his village by the R.U.F.; Dia is dragged off to become a child solider, even as Solomon is indentured as a diamond miner. As luck has it, he finds a gigantic 100-karat “pink,” and this last is the part Danny hears. He immediately devises to get hold of the diamond, imagining that it will allow him to leave behind the godforsaken land of “red earth” (soaked in blood, as you’re told in various ways throughout the film). Solomon goes along, desperate to find his family even if he’s rightly distrustful of Danny.
The white man’s occasionally seen partner, a pilot named Nabil (Jimi Mistry), deems the “fisherman” expendable immediately. The fact that Danny is allied with Nabil suggests his pragmatism and complicates his own racism. It’s clear that he disdains “Africa” out of hand, though he understands it and even thrives in the chaos. “T.I.A.,” he jokes, meaning “This is Africa,” shorthand for the cynical view that Africans (i.e., black Africans) “kill each other as a way of life.” Danny shares this insight with a reporter for a U.S news magazine, Maddy (Jennifer Connelly), whom he meets at bar. (It’s not a little ironic that he’s come to this particular bar to purchase a handgun from the savvy black bartender M’ed [Ntare Mwine].)
As Danny and Maddy fall in love because they must, they share their backgrounds, war swirls around them, and Solomon’s more compelling story intercedes occasionally. (Once again, the always compelling Hounsou is relegated to instruct a white man in good behavior.) Though Maddy also distrusts Danny, she wants the story he can provide concerning the ins and outs of the illegal arms and diamond traffic, such that European dealers amass wealth at the expense of black Africans’ lives.
Danny dismisses Maddy’s work in Sierra Leone and other war zones (she’s been to Afghanistan and Bosnia) as “writing about it,” that is, observing and exploiting. He means to answer her charge that he profits from others’ agonies, but she is the movie’s embodiment of good intentions, providing information (she can access the U.N. database, apparently) plus moral outrage. Her passion for the cause erupts when she sees spectacles of devastation, as when she locates Solomon’s wife Jassie (Benu Mabhena) and their daughters, at an alarmingly huge refugee camp. “This is what a million people looks like,” says Maddy, looking out on a field full of homeless souls. Though she is also cynical about the effects of U.S media (“You might catch a minute of this on CNN, right there between sports and weather”), Maddy believes she can actually help by “writing about it.” And so she agrees to Danny’s plan: she helps Solomon, Danny gives her conflict diamond trafficker names, and Solomon will recover the pink (which he buried) and hand it over to Danny.
Blood Diamond shows plenty of the effects of the diamond and arms traffic: battles and massacres involving the dazed-and-crazed children of the R.U.F. (Dia’s unit listens to U.S. gangsta rap and is led by one “Captain Poison” [David Harewood]) and major official artillery (the unit visible here features Danny’s old commander, Colonel Coetzee [Arnold Vosloo]). Such violence is horrific and the effects are clearly devastating, but the focus on Danny’s ethical education rather detracts from what seem more urgent troubles, say, a million refugees and thousands of dead civilians.
When Danny commands Solomon to head in a particular direction (toward the diamond) rather than the camp where Dia might be staying, the father refuses to follow orders. “You gonna need some of that old discipline, eh?” taunts Danny. Again, Solomon denies him, “You are not the master.” At first, this underscores the irony of an earlier scene, where an R.U.F. soldier advised Solomon and other miners that they are no longer under the heel of white slavers and colonialists, even as he’s treating them as brutally as any “master.” But then Danny reveals what’s at stake, not just power and wealth, but racism, calling Solomon “kaffir.”
This stark moment dramatizes ongoing racism, but the movie retreats from that idea (leaving it to the individual Danny, not nailing it to the broader system). Instead, it turns to the bad diamonds as a cause, not a symptom. “I understand why people want our diamonds,” Solomon says later, when he and Danny have reconciled, “but how can our own people do this to each other?” Poverty, disease, despair, lack of education, rage for decades—all certainly have something to do with this “how.” When Solomon suggests that some see the days of white rule as more orderly, he leaves out the terrible abuses and violence of that rule, and Danny lets him.
The soldier of fortune knows how to use the deep structure of racism. When he tells Solomon, “I know people, white people. Without me, you’re just another black man in Africa, all right?”, he’s surely right. But the movie uses that same system. It makes this black man a figure for righteous vengeance, and his immediate targets are other black men in Africa, with large guns and bloody machetes and scarred faces. White, designer-suited Europeans in Antwerp and London do appear as beneficiaries of the bloodshed, but they don’t suffer the same sorts of visceral, audience-moving consequences as those wicked black Africans.