Saturday, December 9, 2006
Edward Zwick gained fame for creating TVsthirtysomething
and then moved to the big screen to tackle historical events inGlory
andThe Last Samurai
. Now he turns his attention to recent headline news forBlood Diamond
(opening December 8 throughout San Diego), a story about the illegal diamond trade in Africa.
Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond.
Edward Zwick, a white American filmmaker, has told the story of black soldiers led by a white officer during the Civil War in Glory, and later focused on a white American leading Japanese warriors in The Last Samurai . Now Zwick looks at recent history in Africa's Sierra Leone with his film Blood Diamond in which he offers up the black and white acting team of Djimon Hounsou and Leonardo DiCaprio in a kind of revamping of the Sidney Poitier-Tony Curtis pairing in The Defiant Ones. But while The Defiant Ones' used a pair of black and white prisoners on the run and bound by handcuffs as a means of exploring racial tensions of the late fifties, Blood Diamond surveys hot button international political issues by serving up a white and a black man bound together by the pursuit of a large diamond that could be each mans ticket to freedom.
Set in Sierra Leone, the film shows the atrocities committed by both those in power and those rebelling, and the poor people caught in between. Solomon Vandy (Hounsou) is one of those Africans caught in the crossfire. Vandy is forced to mine for diamonds by the guerrillas who need the gems to finance their war. By chance, Vandy finds a large diamond that he manages to hide from his captors during a military attack. Both Vandy and the guerrillas land in jail where Danny Archer (DiCaprio), a mercenary dealing in illicit diamonds, also happens to be cooling his heels. While in jail, Archer learns about Vandy's hidden treasure. Archer then manages to get both he and Vandy out in the hopes of getting his hands on the stone. Vandy sees the diamond as the only means he may have of finding his missing family and buying their freedom. Archer, on the other hand, has more selfish ambitions and sees the diamond as his meal ticket out of Africa. Archer proposes that the two men join forces in order to head back into the dangerous territory where the stone is hidden. Along the way they hook up with Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connolly), an American journalist who wants to write an investigative piece about blood diamonds in the hopes that she can make a difference in the world. Now the three head off to the jungle with mercenaries, guerrillas and the government in hot pursuit.
Blood Diamond presents itself as an action thriller but the genre trappings cant hide the fact that Zwick wants to teach audiences another history lesson and lecture them on political correctness. Jennifer Connellys reporter exists only to spout statistics and educate us on the subject. She's like one of those characters you bump into in a video game that spews information so you can advance to the next level. When Archer first meets Bowen, their conversation is a rapid summary of recent African history with snide comments about American guilt and the fact that the politically correct way to refer to Rhodesia now is to call it Zimbabwe. Similarly, Vandy is meant to be symbolic of the African people. But none of these people feel like fully fleshed out characters.
Edward Zwick directs Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou.
Zwick is not content to just tell a good action story or to focus tightly on one aspect of a complex problemhe wants to explore everything. He shows how the guerrillas coerce children into fighting, how diamonds fund the violence, how the west ignores the problems in Africa, the formation of massive refugee camps, and so on. Yet even though the film covers a lot of ground, it never gets to the complexity of the problems. Its broad in scope but not deep.
A film that did manage to blend politics and good storytelling together was last year's The Constant Gardener, a thriller that enlightened us about Africa while also delivering a compelling and tense narrative. That film found a clever way to weave the characters journey neatly and tightly into the themes of social injustice in Africa so that the audience got an education without being hit over the head with a message. The Constant Gardener riveted viewers with the characters and their emotional journey first and then worked on enlightening us with its themes.
Zwick, however, is not as graceful in weaving his tale. Plus, he hurts the film by not giving equal weight to the two male characters. Zwick appears to make the odd assertion that the white characters have more emotional investment in and ownership of Africa than the blacks. Archer is told by another white mercenary that the dirt in Africa is red because it is soaked with their blood, and that they can never leave the country because Africa runs through their veins. Archer then gets to bleed into the African soil and essentially proclaim it as his country. But it's also Vandy's country. Yet the film makes less of an effort to point out the amount of black African blood split on the same soil. Another scene that plays falsely is when Vandy wonders aloud if his country might not have been better off when it were ruled by whites. Maybe, he suggest, the blacks just have something bad within them. Such a comment seems ill placed. After all it was white colonials who created some of the divisions that still haunt the continent today. And while Zwick promotes political correctness, he never really allows Vandy's character the same chance as Archer's to speak out. When Vandy does have a moment when is supposed to speak about the pain and suffering of his country, thats the moment when Zwick brings up the music and pulls away so that the voice he claims is the most important one for us to hear, the one we are urged not to ignore, is in essence silenced.
This year, DiCaprio makes an earnest bid to change from pretty boy to tough guy with his dual roles as the hard edged undercover cop in The Departed and the mercenary with shifting morals here in Blood Diamond . He's a talented actor and the harder edge is a nice change of pace. Hounsou's Vandy is made subordinate to DiCaprio's Archer and that's too bad. Hounsou is a forceful actor and he should have been given more to work with. Connolly serves merely as a pretty plot device.
A recent film that did convey a better sense of the African experience is Catch a Fire . But that film came and went in a week. It was a more provocative film in that it explored how the injustices suffered by one black man politicized him enough to make him take action and join a resistance movement that used violence. He's labeled a terrorist by the white government. That film at least tried to convey an African point of view even though it was also made by a white filmmaker. Films from Africa, made by African filmmakers are few and of those few only a rare one ever makes it to American theater screens. All the films weve seen recently of Africa Blood Diamond, Catch a Fire, The Constant Gardener, Biko, The Last King of Scotland, Tears of the Sun are all very western in terms of their narrative structure. Films from Africa by such directors as Sembene Ousmane or Djibril Diop Mambety have a very different storytelling quality to them that stems from an oral storytelling tradition. It would be nice to see more films from a genuinely African perspective make it to American theaters.
Blood Diamond (rated R for strong violence and language) ends with the request that people demand that the trade in blood diamonds stop. But this call to action is simplistic and naive. Its not like The Inconvenient Truth asking us to buy smaller cars, drive less and use public transportationall things we can easily and actually accomplish. Diamonds dont come with their origins engraved on the back. So for the film to lay out its case and simply say its in your power to stop the trade in blood diamonds is a smug way for Zwick to feel like hes accomplished something when he hasn't. Hes really just nicked the surface of a much bigger and more complex issue. In the end, Zwick's film just feels like another attempt at alleviating white guilt.
Companion viewing: Catch a Fire, The Defiant Ones, The Constant Gardener, Amandla, Moolade, Touki Bouki