Major motion pictures about African social problems always face a Catch-22. To be commercially viable and attract Western movie-goers, the films need to cast big stars -- usually white ones -- in leading roles. So stories about the hardships of black Africans end up unfolding from the perspective of white characters, watering down the urgency of the very issue that inspired the film in the first place.
Exhibit A is Cry Freedom, ostensibly a biopic about martyred anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko (a young Denzel Washington), which devoted more screen time to Kevin Kline's concerned journalist. Several African films this year have worked around the whitewashing problem. Catch a Fire cast Tim Robbins as the antagonist, a conflicted South African secret policeman, while The Last King of Scotland used a white protagonist not for star power, but for outsider status to draw the audience closer to the nightmarish inner circle of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker).
Alas, the latest Hollywood-produced African drama, Blood Diamond, succumbs to the same kind of white preferential treatment as Cry Freedom did. Edward Zwick, director of Glory and The Last Samurai, presents an engrossing, well-researched narrative about "conflict diamonds," or African diamonds mined in war zones in order to bankroll armed bloodshed. Despite its impeccable crusading credentials, Blood Diamond finds a vehicle for the issue in an utterly predictable plot involving a cynical white smuggler played by Titanic star Leonardo DiCaprio.
The sufferings of the black residents of 1999 Sierra Leone find a voice in fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou). He lives a peaceable life with his family until an unprovoked attack from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which massacres and mutilates civilians. His family escapes but Solomon is enslaved at one of the RUF's black-market diamond mines, where he manages to find and hide a 100-carat, uncut pink diamond, which becomes the story's MacGuffin.
Enter Danny Archer (DiCaprio), a diamond smuggler and veteran soldier from Zimbabwe. Danny hears rumors of Solomon's gem and tries to partner up with the fisherman, who only wants to reunite with his family. In turn, American reporter Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) pursues Danny as the perfect source for her exposé of the trade in conflict diamonds. DiCaprio and Connelly's scenes lapse into an achingly familiar cycle: flirt, argue, repeat. The fact that their characters are named "Archer" and "Bowen" seems too clever by half, and Danny's change of heart seems a foregone conclusion.
Bowen serves as Blood Diamond's conscience and mouthpiece, well aware of the extent of the Western world's indifference but still convinced that, "People back home wouldn't buy a ring for their finger if they knew it cost somebody else's hand." The film's latter section emphasizes the mismatched-buddy dynamic between Danny and Solomon, like The Defiant Ones against a backdrop of African strife, culminating with a heavy-handed plea for racial cooperation.
As much as Blood Diamond tries to indict global companies and Western consumers for the abuses of the diamond trade, its depiction of Sierra Leone's guerrilla warfare overshadows the international issues. The black revolutionaries prove the film's most sadistic villains by far, and Blood Diamond's most terrifying, inedible images involve child soldiers, seen shooting innocents with assault rifles almost too big for them to carry. Solomon's son is drafted as an RUF child soldier and subject to indoctrination worthy of any cult.
Blood Diamond features white bad guys, such as Michael Sheen (The Queen's Tony Blair) as an unethical European diamond profiteer. But the audience will be more likely to remember the moments of black-on-black violence and exploitation than the corporate interests that profit from them.
If the film doesn't completely strike its intended target, Blood Diamond remains a crisply paced and superbly photographed film, featuring magnificent African vistas and engrossing action scenes. But no matter how sincere Zwick and the other filmmakers may be, Blood Diamond's dramatization of Third World problems inevitably feels like a kind of celebrity tourism. Its attention to the plight of Africa lasts only until the next big-issue film comes along.