Leo di Caprio and Djimon Hounsou
in Blood Diamond
I don’t write enough here about movies. We watch a lot of them. For those of you who haven’t visited our home, Dave and I don’t have cable or any of the new-fangled on-demand stuff. In fact we run a very low-tech casa. An old TV/DVD combo in the livingroom and a 13-inch TV/VCR combo in the guest room. (No snickering Declan.) I know, inconceivable; I have no idea who ought to be kicked off American Idol this week but I imagine I’ll go to my grave at peace with that one.
Instead, we use Netflix to watch movies, HBO series and documentaries of our choice and, except for March Madness, Tour de France and the odd must-see (yeah, I did miss The Police at the Grammys), we’re quite happy in our oblivion.
But what I wanted to talk about was the baggage. Last week Blood Diamond arrived in the mail. Set mostly in Sierra Leone, about illegal diamond smuggling to fund a rebel movement, this film cracks open African civil warfare like no other I have seen. Unlike the NPR interview I heard a few weeks back with a child soldier from that country, Blood Diamond is very graphic about the way young children are stripped from their villages and turned into drugged-out zombies with machine guns. And just for this, I recommend this movie: the ability to bring into focus an issue most turn their heads from the second they see it. Hollywood done good.
Leo di Caprio done even better. Who’d have thought he’d ever drag himself out from under that big old boat? But he definitely does in this movie. Di Caprio plays Danny Archer, a cynical thirty-something ex-Rhodie-come-South-African army boy turned smuggler.
And this is where the baggage comes in. As someone from the old country, it’s always hard to watch movies about Africa. Hard to enjoy them. You’re always noticing the overly romanticized scenery, the background music that is from the wrong African country, the way things are depicted stupidly in black and white. So I am impressed by Blood Diamond’s writers who bring out the greys: The cell phones and laptops used to wage war in the bush; the way genocide is funded continents away by the need for bigger diamond engagement rings at everyman prices; the uneasy compromises journalists must make to extract the story.
And yes, too, the new racism of trust and mistrust between individuals in Africa. Djimon Hounsou (very easy on the eye in this role can I just say?) plays Solomon Vandy, the Sierra Leoneon father whose young son is taken by the rebels. You see the violent way in which children are stripped of their innocence and volition, how they learn to turn AK-47s on villages of women and children even younger than themselves. Not to give the plot away, but Vandy and Archer are thrown together — an unlikely mercenary team set on finding Vandy’s son along with a large pink diamond he buried working as slave labor in a diamond mine. The stone buys Vandy and his family’s freedom to Europe and allows American journalist Maddy Bowen (Archer’s love interest, played by Jennifer Connelly) to blow the cover of large multinational diamond consortiums.
But enough about plot, which is pretty straightforward and predictable. For a film about Africa, this is truly better than most. Unfortunate that the leads are played by Hollywood celebrities, but all three (Di Caprio, Hounsou and Connelly) do a fairly good job. Di Caprio’s South-African accent is well-learned and tolerably executed, and he’s clearly done his homework on the kind of men who emerged from Zimbabwe’s War of Independence through the old South-African army and beyond into the gritty wars that balance power in Africa. The only crack in his armor is that he is a bit too pretty. His trendy haircut and $200 highlights would be out of place on a real Danny Archer. See? Impossible not to pick, pick, pick. As an aside, there are a few African actors cast in supporting roles. Marius Weyers and Arnold Vosloo as a diamond executive and army colonel respectively, and newcomers Benu Mahbela and Anointing Lukola as Vandy’s wife Jassie and son N’Yanda. And of course, the bit characters and extras.
I am sure Sierra Leoneons will disagree and find a million ways in which this film is inaccurate. Heavens knows we’ve watched and cringed at enough blunt attempts at telling the South-African story. One thing I doubt they’ll say is that this movie glosses over the horror of blood diamond mining in Sierra Leone and other African nations, or the greater evil of taking a machete to the innocence and futures of its children. And for this alone I recommend Blood Diamonds.