I remember vaguely hearing about Blood Diamond when it came out. Specifically, I remember the trailer because of Leonardo DiCaprio saying in a South African accent that in the U.S. the phrase is “bling-bling” but where they are, the phrase is “bling-bang.” That seemed like such a weird line, so forced. It wasn’t a film that interested me tremendously, to be honest.
But we’re nearing Oscar time, and one of the questions that regularly pops up is a variation of “Who is the best actor/actress/director/etc. to never win an Oscar.” In the actor category, one name that won’t wait too long to be mentioned is Leonardo DiCaprio. So I figured it was time to watch a film that earned him another trip to the always a bridesmaid, never a bride party. (By the way, the correct answer for the greatest actor to never win an Oscar is Peter O’Toole, who missed on all eight of his nominations. Sorry, Leo fans.)
The overriding lesson of Blood Diamond is that despite the beauty of the landscape and the incredible diversity of the local flora and fauna, there are large parts of Africa that are a terrible place to be. One of those terrible places is Sierra Leone. We are introduced to Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman. Sierra Leone, though, is a hotbed of political turmoil. One of the insurgent groups, the Revolutionary United Front, is in the habit of raiding villages, killing a number of people, and harvesting young boys to serve as soldiers and men to work as forced labor hunting for diamonds to be sold for guns and ammunition. Solomon’s town is raided and he is conscripted. His wife (Benu Mabhena) and some of his children escape, but his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) is drawn into the RUF and forced to become a child soldier.
While mining, Solomon discovers a massive pink diamond. Knowing that the penalty for hiding a find like this is immediate death, he arranges to hide it anyway, but is discovered by the leader of the RUF camp, Captain Poison (David Harewood). Before Poison can claim the diamond or kill Solomon, the camp is raided and everyone not killed is rounded up and taken to prison. It is there that Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Zimbabwean gunrunner, hears about the diamond. He manages to get Solomon released in the hopes of claiming the diamond for himself and leaving Africa forever.
The problem for both men is that getting back to the diamond means crossing territory controlled by the RUF, who are more likely to kill them than talk to them. To get in, they get assistance from some unusual sources. The first is Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), a former South African military man now freelance operative working for hire in the area. Coetzee has a history with Danny, and believe that the massive pink diamond is his by right. The two also encounter Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), an American journalist. She agrees to help them if Danny will help her break a story on the illegal diamond trade. Figuring he has nothing to lose if he gets the diamond, Danny agrees.
What happens from here is the story of the two men trying to get back to the RUF camp without being killed. Meanwhile, Solomon’s main goal is not finding the diamond, but recovering his son from the RUF terrorists.
Blood Diamond might sound complicated based on that summary, but it really is fairly straightforward in some important respects. The main thought through the entire film is that everyone is essentially willing to kill anyone and everyone else at all times for virtually any reason. No one is ever safe, and the threat of terrible violence is always imminent. This is the sort of violence that is the most difficult to watch because it is often so casual. It reminds me most strongly of what is depicted in a film like Cidade de Deus: wanton, cruel, without mercy, and without guilt. Life does not even rise to the level of a cheap commodity; it is almost literally worthless in this place.
Where Blood Diamond fails is not in its message, but in the delivery. The message of the film is hammered out in every frame. Yes, Sierra Leone is a terrible place. Yes, the violence is horrifying, and even more horrifying is the callousness. There’s no subtlety here. It could be argued pretty successfully that subtlety isn’t called for here, that there is nothing subtle about the situation. That doesn’t change the fact that this has all of the finesse of a punch in the face. There are times when it felt like it should’ve been called White Guilt.
It does cause me to wonder how it’s determined who gets nominated for what award, though. DiCaprio was nominated for Best Actor while Djimon Hounsou was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. How was Hounsou a supporting actor here? How was he not the main focus of the film? I simply don’t understand how that works at all.
So is Blood Diamond a great movie? Perhaps. It’s at least a very good one, and one worth seeing. Just expect that once it’s done, you’ll feel mildly guilty that it even had to be made.
Why to watch Blood Diamond: It’s the sort of story that demands to be seen.
Why not to watch: It beats the audience over the head with its message.