I’m sick of white folks. It’s not just that we command an unseemly portion of the world’s resources, exploiting hundreds of millions of non-white folks and causing horrendous environmental damage in the process and then patting ourselves on the back for paying the merest lip service to righting our wrongs. It’s that when we make movies about the atrocities committed for our benefit and with our tacit consent, we insist upon setting up one of our own as the hero. It’s really pretty sick.
The latest outbreak of this particular affliction is Blood Diamond, a film that’s ostensibly about the murder, mutilation, forced labor, kidnapping, and brainwashing of black Africans but whose creators insist that what’s really important is whether the roguish white guy gets it on with the hot white chick. This, of course, is a gross oversimplification, but then so is the movie.
Scripted by Charles Leavitt (The Mighty, K-PAX) and directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai), Blood Diamond is set in Sierra Leone in 1999, where a poor fisherman named Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) watches the Revolutionary United Front mow down much of the populace of his village and chop the hands off many of the surviving men before taking him and some of the other men to work as slaves panning for diamonds in a river. Solomon’s family escapes the RUF and treks across Sierra Leone on foot and with no provisions, desperately seeking a refugee camp. Solomon himself is able to escape his captors when they are attacked by the Sierra Leone army, which conveniently arrives just he’s been caught trying to hide a huge pink diamond worth several million dollars. The rest of the film is about Solomon’s struggle to find his family and recover that diamond so that he can set them up in a safe place and see that his beloved son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) gets the education that will allow him to live a better life.
But wait — that’s not actually what the rest of the film is about. Sure, Solomon does go in search of his family and try to recover the diamond, but his story — which, though a heavy-handed melodrama, is at least some kind of exploration of the horrors of life in Sierra Leone during the RUF’s failed insurrection — is backgrounded in favor of focusing on sexily amoral diamond smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio, with abs as solid and well-defined as the scutes on a turtle’s shell) and his flirtation with muckraking American reporter Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly, radiant as always). For every minute spent genuinely considering the lasting and devastating legacy of Western imperialism, five are spent watching the twinkles in their pretty eyes.
The good news is that DiCaprio’s performance is far less annoying than the film’s trailer would lead you to believe. Yes, his accent (which is supposed to be South African-ish, more or less) is inconsistent and wholly unconvincing, but in the context of the film it’s not as noticeably erratic as it is when tiny clips of his scenes are strung together by a trailer editor who obviously had it in for the actor. And as we saw a couple of months ago in The Departed, DiCaprio has finally outgrown his prolonged adolescence and reached a state that some might call manhood. Still, this part is all wrong for DiCaprio, though it’s hard to think of any actor of his generation who could play it. It’s really a Bogart kind of role — tough, selfish, cavalier, and really not at all likable, so that the actor playing it must bring a tremendous presence of his own to it for us to have any feeling for the character. But DiCaprio doesn’t and we don’t.
The formidable Jennifer Connelly fares far better, though she’s given much less to work with. Her character is no more than another Lois Lane-type crusading journalist, without a whit of complexity or interest, yet she is such a fascinating and powerful screen presence that you do care about her, even while cringing through the terrible dialogue Leavitt has yoked her with. And you miss her terribly when the shit really hits the fan, and DiCaprio’s character sends her off to drink cappuccino and shop for shoes, because even tough lady-journalists who have been making their way through a war zone quite well, thank you very much, can’t stick around for the big, manly, dick-swingin’ denouement. The only actor in the cast who suffers greater indignity is Hounsou. (Remember him? The filmmakers do, intermittently.) Solomon is written as a naïve rube who is so full-to-bursting with goodness that initially he can’t even bring himself to lie to save his son’s life, and when he isn’t just being sweetly dumb he’s played for comic relief. It’s a disturbingly condescending treatment of a character that has to stand in for the tens or hundreds of thousands (estimates vary) of innocent victims of the RUF.
The really frustrating thing about Blood Diamond is that Zwick actually does a good job of depicting the RUF’s atrocities — showing us the dead and mangled villagers; the burning, pillaged towns; and the children forced to become killers — in a way that’s truly vivid and horrifying. And he and cinematographer Eduardo Serra effectively (though perhaps too obviously and too often) contrast the horrors of life in Sierra Leone with the stunning natural landscape, implicitly questioning how such evil could exist in such a place. We see these things, we absorb them, and under better circumstances our understanding and sympathy would build and the film would achieve what Zwick and Leavitt apparently set out to do. But instead we zip back to the smuggler and the journalist, ‘cause we gotta know if they’re gonna play hide-the-salami.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Blood Diamond / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | December 8, 2006 | Comments ()