The film Blood Diamond was recently lent to me by a friend in the hope I would find it interesting, considering my studies into African history. I had heard of the film but knew little about it, and similarly had a very limited knowledge of the Sierra Leonean Civil War (1991-2002) during which the film is set. Historical films such as this generally have two goals to achieve: to be entertaining and well made, and also to successfully bring to life a period from history. Historical films are also often education, particularly those which are focused around a moral issue such as the diamond trade in this one. In my opinion, the film ticks all of these categories.
The purpose of Blood Diamond – other than making money, obviously – seems to have been to raise awareness about the nature of the industry of blood diamonds. The film explains in great detail how warlords in Sierra Lone took control of diamond mines, gathering local slave labour from pillaged villages as their workforce. These would then be smuggled out of the country into Liberia and sold to transnational corporations. These corporations kept some diamonds off the market in order to boost prices, which, to quote the film’s explanation, didn’t fund the war but created the conditions for it to be profitable. The film explains the situation in rich detail, using a mixture of voiceovers and clips of the different stages to make what could have been a boring explanation come alive.
A historical aspect portrayed less satisfactorily, however, is the political situation during the war. At one stage a character says “government bad, rebels worse,” and this sums up the film’s attitude to the opposing sides. This summary could be accurate, though I’m not well informed enough to say and still have no idea after watching the film. We do see a lot of one rebel faction, which blazes through the countryside killing randomly, taking slaves and hacking off limbs. I believe this to be a realistic portrayal of the atrocities committed during the war. The film’s inclusion of child soldiers also corresponds to my previous knowledge, and the process of indoctrination is shown during chilling scenes where the children are first kidnapped, and then forced to kill innocent people – sometimes even their own families. This form of psychological torture desensitises the children to killing, and coupled with their respect for authority makes them, sickeningly, ‘perfect’ soldiers. The psychological conditioning which the children go through could have been better explored, though, as the film ceases to give the child’s perspective once they have become a soldier and then afterwards.
Blood Diamond is set between 1996 and 2002, during the second half of the war, as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) began to make gains across the country against government forces. My attempt at researching the date has only brought up confusion, as events in the film seem scattered across several years: the only appropriate election I can see to fit the circumstances at the beginning of the film, with the horrific images of arms getting cut off to prevent voting, is the 1996 election. There must be a time-jump at some point, because the capture of Freetown by RUF forces occurs mid-way through the film which didn’t happen until a year later in 1997.
But enough on politics and economics. The three major characters in the film are Zimbabwean diamond smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), Sierra Leonean former slave Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) and American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly). Solomon’s family became refugees after their village was razed by RUF forces, with the exception of his son who was forced to become a soldier. Solomon became a slave searching for diamonds managing to secretly find and bury one before taken to a prison in Freetown. He is freed by Danny, who seeks the diamond so he can escape from Africa. They are joined by Maddy, who hopes to gain information from Danny about the smuggling in order to make a difference in the war. Solomon, desperate to be reunited with his family, is hounded throughout the film by different sides seeking the diamond.
Each character has a fierce and contrasting motivation which pushes the film forward. DiCaprio is excellent as Danny, bringing life and likeability to a character who ought to be despicable yet clearly has a heart. Despite his willing role as a diamond smugger, with the knowledge that this funds the war, and his clear intention to steal the diamond from Solomon – as well as the shockingly racist way he treats him throughout the film – Danny is eventually a sympathetic character. In letting Solomon take the diamond and giving Maddy details on his smuggling operations, Danny redeems himself and dies with the viewers on his side. This may not have been possible without DiCaprio’s skilled performance.
Hounsou’s performance as Solomon gives the horrors of the war a personal perspective as we watch him suffer throughout the film, yet courageously trudge on to take on forces larger than him in order to reunite his family. He gains the audience’s sympathy by being so clearly out of place in a warzone, endangering the quest on one suspenseful occasion. He contrasts with Danny, a trained soldier, and an interesting relationship forms between the two. On the surface they are together by necessity only, each seeming to resent the other’s presence. But by the end of the film they seem to have genuine respect for one another, and depart as friends. As a human personification of the war, Solomon acts as a catalyst for Danny’s redemption.
Maddy is a character I found particularly engaging due to my own desire to become a journalist – though perhaps not in a warzone. Connelly convincingly brings across Maddy’s frustration at being unable to make a difference, and acts as a mouthpiece for the Liberal ‘Western’ perspective of the war. Although she seeks a big story to return to the USA with, this is in order to inform the world of what is happening within Sierra Leone rather than for personal gain. Her continuation with this goal is all the more impressive given, after Solomon asks her whether the Americans will help her after she publishes her report, she replies, “probably not.” Yet she carries on reporting on the war because she believes it to be right. A fascinating moral question is brought up, as Danny asks her whether she exploits the local Sierra Leoneans in reporting and photographing their grief as much as he does in smuggling diamonds. It does appear insensitive that she, and other journalists, are out snapping with their cameras the moment a ‘good picture moment’ occurs, be it dead bodies or despairing relatives. Maddy is aware of this, and more than once puts her camera down to give people privacy. I would not describe what Maddy does as exploitation, considering her aim is to show the world the atrocities being committed, which cannot be watered down if it’s to have the desired effect. But it’s a difficult issue.
The film is fast-paced, moving rapidly from scene to scene across countries and regions to develop the story. There’s constant action and violence, keeping me engaged with suspense in a way The Hobbit never did. This difference may partly be because I don’t already know the story to Blood Diamond, but the nature of each scene creates a new terror for the characters. They must always hide, run, sometimes retaliating but mostly fighting forces they know they cannot defeat. If this had been The Hobbit, I imagine Danny could have single-handedly won the war for the government. By showing a variety of locations; in Freetown, in rural areas, along the smugglers’ route, in the USA, in Britain, etc. – every perspective on the war is given a voice.
Blood Diamond is a fantastic film which has informed me well of the role the diamond industry played in sustaining the Sierra Leonean Civil War. I invested in the characters and cared deeply about each of the protagonists. The climax of the film where they find the diamond, no larger than a golf-ball, almost feels like a let-down. Everything is being fought over this tiny chunk of rock? This seeming disappointment adds to the film’s message. I hope everyone who has watched the film will think twice when considering the possibility of buying a diamond, and will make sure it has originated from a ethical source.
Final score: 9/10