WARNING: This review may contain some plot spoilers.
Most simply stated, the film Blood Diamond, directed by Edward Zwick (thirtysomething, The Siege, The Last Samurai), is a look at the role of diamonds in Sierra Leone’s civil war. It takes place in 1999, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Danny Archer and Djimon Hounsou as Solomon Vandy. Archer is a diamond smuggler, or, if you prefer to use more colorful terminology, a soldier of fortune, while Solomon is a simple fisherman. Of course, one needs at least one speaking part for a woman, so Jennifer Connelly plays intrepid reporter Maddy Bowen.
At the outset of the film (and crucial for any understanding of it), it is explained that conflict diamonds or “blood diamonds” are diamonds mined in war zones and used to finance arms purchases and other items that are necessary to wage war. The story starts out plainly enough — Solomon wants a better life for his son, Dia, so he begins sending Dia to school. On the way home from school they return to their village to find it under attack by the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) rebel army. Despite Solomon's attempts to save his family, they are captured and separated from him. As Solomon is a big, strong, healthy man, rather than having his hand chopped off to prevent his voting (though never explained in the movie, this does have a historical basis), he is sent to work in the diamond fields. Here he comes across a valuable pink diamond and attempts to steal it. He is nearly caught before the rebel army is attacked by government troops. Knowing he is about to be taken by the government troops and thrown in jail, Solomon hides the diamond.
While in prison, he meets Archer, who was caught smuggling diamonds into Liberia. Archer learns of the pink diamond and upon his release, ensures Solomon is let out as well so that he can try and rope Solomon into helping him find the diamond. After much cajoling, Solomon agrees to help Archer in return for help finding his family.
With the help of Maddy, a reporter looking for a story on blood diamonds, Solomon's family is located at a refugee camp. However, Dia is not with them. Archer and Solomon do manage to find Dia, though, during their search for the pink diamond. However, Dia has been brainwashed by the RUF and is now fighting for them. They lose Dia once more, only to run across him again at the diamond fields. A tug-at-your-heartstrings scene ensues as Dia trains his gun on Archer and Solomon must convince his child not to murder the soldier of fortune. Naturally, Solomon succeeds and they leave the fields with the diamond. In the end, Maddy helps Solomon sell the diamond to buy back his family. Solomon and his family then, presumably, live happily ever after.
The movie is well put together. The pacing is good, the storyline interesting, and the acting very strong. DiCaprio and Hounsou are outstanding in their roles and unquestionably deserving of the accolades they received during this past awards season.
That being said, I am troubled by the movie in general. The intended moral of the story (and it is, unquestionably, intended) is that the West (read: white people) have repeatedly found things of value in Africa (diamonds, gold, oil, etc.) and have destroyed the continent in pursuit of these things. It’s a little simplistic to say that this is wholly and absolutely true, but the movie never questions the moral, it just puts it forward over and over again. It’s almost as if Zwick and Charles Leavitt (who wrote the screenplay) are fifth graders, trying to put down any opposing viewpoints and end all discussion simply by yelling louder than everyone else.
More troubling than this one-sided opinion though, is the fact that Solomon only ever accomplishes anything with the help of Maddy and Archer. Archer gets him out of jail. Maddy finds his family. Archer convinces him to look for the diamond which Solomon in the end needs to get his family back. Maddy helps him sell the diamond. Over and over again the audience is shown that without his white friends, who are using Solomon for their own reasons (Archer for money and Maddy for a story), Solomon would be helpless.
Thus, in Blood Diamond we have a movie with incredibly conflicting messages. First, the West has destroyed Africa in their own quest for wealth and the West should, more than likely, get out of Africa and leave it for the Africans. Second, the average African man can do nothing without the help of the West; without the West, Africans are helpless.
What exactly then is the movie trying to say to the audience? It is not that now that the West is in Africa they must stay and rectify things. It seems that the message, unintended though it may be, is that the West has destroyed Africa through its own greed, and yet Westerners are still the only people that can get things done, Africans simply cannot accomplish important tasks.
As good as the rest of the film may be, this final message cannot be glossed over. While the technical aspects of the filmmaking are good, and as strong as the acting is, any movie that puts forth such a troubling present-day “great white father myth” as a subtext is deeply unsettling. Whether or not Zwick and Leavitt wanted it there I can’t say, but the fact is that it is there and it must be considered when watching the film.
Blood Diamond has made it way onto DVD and is currently in release in widescreen and full screen formats as well as a two-disc special edition which contains several featurettes including one on how DiCaprio prepared for his role and another which has Jennifer Connelly discussing women journalists in wars. This special edition is only available in widescreen format.
It is an interesting film, and one that leaves the audience thinking. Sadly though, the audience will not necessarily leave with the intended message.