These days we think as little about where mall diamonds come from as where grocery store food is grown. Blood Diamond aims to change that fact with a fictional story inspired by facts.
Danny Archer is a former mercenary from Zimbabwe who in 1999 runs guns and smuggles diamonds across the African continent. But he's not one of those mean, horrible, ruthless guys who you love to hate when watching the likes of Casino Royale. He's more of a cute and cuddly, I-just-do-this-as-a-hobby-because-it's-fun criminal.
Maybe that's why he puts up only a small fuss when Maddy, a pretty American journalist, asks him to help her break a big story about how the export and sale of diamonds is fueling Sierra Leone's civil war. He has his selfish motives, too, of course. He's on the trail of a large pink diamond, and tagging along with her gives him cover while traveling through rebel-controlled territory.
The pink diamond was found by Mende fisherman Solomon Vandy after his family was scattered, his hometown burned, and he was forced to labor at a primitive mining operation in Sierra Leone run by the Revolutionary United Front. He hides the jewel in the sand, but word gets out about it. And Danny wants it.
So three people with the most disparate backgrounds and motivations imaginable find themselves thrown together in the midst of a brutal African war. Solomon, Danny and Maddy travel deep into the most dangerous territory in the world, hoping against hope to, respectively, be reunited with family, make a truckload of money and kick-start world peace.
Most of Blood Diamond's positivity takes the form of lessons learned from watching and being forced to mentally grapple with incomprehensible brutality. War is not always immoral. And this story doesn't seem to be trying to make that statement. It's making the judgment that this kind of war—war based on greed and bloodlust—is immoral.
"My head always told me that people are naturally good. Experience tells me otherwise," exclaims a schoolteacher who's surrounded by a world in flames. He concludes, "What you do shows whether you are good or bad." Indeed. And clearly identified here as evil is the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children in the name of conflict. Also that children should in no circumstance be used as either pawns in a war effort, or, worse, as soldiers on the front lines.
[Spoiler Warning] Danny sacrifices himself for Solomon's sake at a pivotal moment. Having gradually turned 180 degrees, Danny ends up embodying what it means to lay down one's life for a friend. He, in essence, rejects his former behaviors and attitudes, and does the right thing when the right thing is needed most.
Maddy, meanwhile, steadfastly clings to her make-the-world-a-better-place ideals. She repeatedly urges Danny to think about how his criminal activities are destroying lives. And she despises the short attention spans and apathy of America and Europe. Confronted by the sight of a refugee camp holding 1 million people, she laments, "You might catch a minute of this on CNN—between sports and weather." As if applying a secular filter to the Apostle Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 7, Maddy insists that she's rejected marriage in favor of being free to pursue her goal of using journalism to throw sticks in the gears of mankind's pursuit of inhumanity.
Refusing to give up on helping individuals, Maddy does her best not to let the magnitude of the problem prevent her from trying to make a difference. In a moment of self-doubt, she blurts out, "This whole country's at war. Why should I help just one person?" She pauses, and then corrects herself: "Awww, I can't believe I just said that!"
While Danny will do anything for money and Maddy will do anything for a story, Solomon does everything he can to care for and then, later, reunite his family. Still, he expresses confusion about and distaste for the idea that he needs to lie about who he is and what he's doing—even when it would seem that such "undercover" methods are justified by the imminent threat of death. He goes along with Danny's instructions to throw their enemies off the scent, but the film's inclusion of his reluctance introduces to viewers a yearning for honesty that's rarely seen onscreen, even from our heroes.
Over the end credits, rapper Nas (who's not known for his uplifting lyrics) belts out a convicting and convincingly self-aware rant: "My VVS glimmers on my chest/200-thou-encrusted watch on my wrist/I wonder how people starve to death/When God bless the land that lacks the harvest/The stones are quality, but they homes are poverty/And the whole world ignores the robbery."
Capt. Poison, the R.U.F. fighter who oversees the miners, is ruthless beyond all reasonable measure. Defending his actions, he says, "You think I'm a devil, but only because I've lived in hell. I want to get out." Another man remarks that he used to question whether God would "ever forgive us for what we've done to each other." Then he says he's realized that it doesn't really matter because "God left this place a long time ago."
Using the f-word, Maddy crudely tells Danny to get lost if, among other things, they aren't going to have sex. A fellow journalist makes a few rude comments about Maddy. U.S. President Bill Clinton's sexual escapades are roughly referenced when Maddy expresses outrage that the American public is too obsessed with sex to pay attention to the ways in which the world is coming apart at the seams.
Rapes committed as acts of war are referenced several times, once in the context of a vicious threat. A prostitute solicits Danny. (He forcefully rebuffs her.) Danny's seen wearing only a towel. Maddy bares cleavage.
This is not an action/adventure film. It's a war film engulfed in intense violence and death. To create a recurring shockwave effect on viewers, director and producer Edward Zwick (who crafted Glory and The Last Samurai) frequently shows fighters sweeping through villages, towns and cities, machine-gunning everyone in sight. There's no justifiable rhyme or reason assigned to the atrocities, which make them all the more difficult to digest—exactly the response the story requires.
Caught stashing a small diamond in his mouth, a miner is shot dead from point-blank range. We watch his body crash to the ground, just as we've already seen a woman's do and we are soon to see many others. Similar is a scene in which Danny takes down two men who stand in his way. Much more sinister and troubling are images of children, some seemingly not even preteens yet, strafing their enemies.
To teach the kids to kill, they're blindfolded and told to squeeze the trigger. When their blindfolds are removed, they see what we've already seen: They've just killed someone who was shoved in front of them. Lecturing them on their newfound power to command respect, their "instructor" tells them that if someone doesn't give them the respect their weapon demands, they are to take it by bloody force.
Early on we see how these children are "recruited." Traveling from village to village, rebels shoot indiscriminately to gain control. Then they line up townsfolk, cutting off arms and hands seemingly at random. When they see a young man or boy they want to use as a fighter, they pull him out of line and throw him in a truck.
A man is seen being hurled off a balcony. Another is dragged behind a truck. Another has been hanged. Dead bodies litter streets and fields. Bombs go off. Molotov cocktails are thrown. Rocket-propelled grenades make short work of buildings. A harrowing car chase begins with an explosion and ends with a crash. It appears that Solomon kills a man with a shovel. (The final blows land offscreen.) Solomon and Danny grapple and fight.
Danny uses a large knife to dislodge one of his teeth (which holds a diamond inside it). It also becomes clear that he's inserted diamonds under the skin of a goat when a soldier slices the animal open trying to find them.
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word is heard about 15 times; the s-word just slightly fewer. Jesus' name is abused a half-dozen times. Milder profanities are also incorporated. And racial slurs are used (among them is the insult "kaffir"), but seemingly only to illustrate how hurtful they are. British vulgarities "b-gger," "w-nker" and "s-d" make appearances.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Danny, who smokes nonstop, drinks hard liquor to dull the pain of his impromptu diamond "surgery." He frequents a local bar. And he introduces Maddy to a home-brewed concoction that's clearly both strong and rank. He grabs bottles of Jack Daniel's from a supply tent.
Other characters—even kids—drink and smoke. What seems to be a hallucinogenic drug sends at least one child soldier into a trance.
Other Negative Elements
Danny not only believes lying about his identity will prolong his life, but also that stealing is a good way to round up provisions for his trek. That's not surprising, of course, for a character who has occupied his time in recent years selling things like grenade launchers to guerilla fighters fond of killing civilians.
A boy is shown carving "R.U.F." into his arm with a razor blade. Obscured by shadows, Solomon strips naked in prison. He pulls his pants down to relieve himself in the jungle.
The engagement diamond I gave my wife nearly a decade and a half ago was a family heirloom, mined and shaped well over a century ago. So it would seem that my happy engagement and subsequent wedding ceremony was not invisibly shadowed by the pain and suffering inflicted on African miners in recent decades. I guess that means I'm guilt-free for now—until somebody does a movie about the horrendous abuse that may have (for all I know) dominated the 19th century diamond trade.
That's how effective Blood Diamond is in communicating its primary message—that diamonds, at least in reent years, are purchased with relish in the first world on the broken backs of the third. As the credits rolled and I walked out of the theater, I wasn't thinking about Leonardo DiCaprio's studiously performed accent, I was thinking about my own younger days of romance and how they were punctuated by the flash of a diamond solitaire. And I was pondering what Maddy's onscreen words might mean to me: "People back home aren't going to buy a ring if they know it cost somebody his hand."
Movies change the way people think. And intense, well-crafted, brooding, war movies do it more than most. That's why the gem industry isn't taking this film's diamonds-are-killing-people message lying down—even though it's technically not a true story. (It's fiction that encompasses ideas harvested from real-life accounts of how diamond exports have affected regional wars in Africa.)
It's being widely reported that the World Diamond Council has hired crisis PR firm Sitrick & Co. to coordinate a $15 million campaign to counter it. Trying to put the best possible spin on things, WDC head Eli Izhakoff says, "I'm not worried at all by the film as long as people get to know the facts. We see this as an opportunity to make sure that people are aware of all the good stuff the industry has done." (The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, launched in 2002, is an example.)
Despite its onscreen weight, though, the diamond conflict presented here serves a purpose beyond that of making Westerners think about where their baubles come from. It makes the emphatic statement that the abuse of natural, monetarily beneficial resources should be condemned and restricted as much as the world community can possibly do so. And to make that point, it introduces us to child soldiers. The kids shown here aren't being taught by their parents to hate and kill, they're being kidnapped, imprisoned and brainwashed. And the movie unequivocally preaches that when things like this happen, lots of people die. And everybody loses. Even those who think they've won.
In this regard, Blood Diamond screams out a protest that should be heard and well-heeded. How does it do it, though? With graphic, sometimes gratuitous images of violence, and obscene and profane language.
A postscript: I've reviewed many poignant message movies over the years, most of which rely on extreme content—obsessively detailing brutality, gore and death—to seal the emotional deal. And most of them, Blood Diamond included, leave me wishing they weren't flagrantly R-rated so that more people could be exposed to them. It can be done. Old black-and-white masterpieces (Sergeant York, for instance) can strike you to your very core and demand a righteous response without abusing your personal claim on morality in the process. So can movies now. Most just don't.
An onscreen epilogue of sorts shows gem industry execs and human rights groups, among others, gathering in Kimberly, South Africa, to confront the death and destruction that follows in a blood diamond's wake. A speaker begins the conference with: "Let us ignore it no more." Agreed. But neither should we ignore the intricate moralities entangled in the ways in which we choose to teach future generations about right and wrong, peace and war.