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The vicious legacy of colonialism

Review by Cindy Beringer | February 9, 2007 | Page 9

Blood Diamond, directed by Edward Zwick, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly.

BLOOD DIAMOND is a good movie with a badly flawed attempt at social consciousness, its "message" muddled with ancient stereotypes and simplistic solutions.

Danny Archer (played marvelously by Leonardo DiCaprio) is the son of Rhodesian colonists, an unredeemed racist mercenary turned diamond smuggler. With some just-too-easy coincidences and an unconvincing last-minute "conversion," he and a crusading journalist from the U.S. (Jennifer Connelly) manage to save the day for African fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) and make consumers feel good about buying diamonds again.

Vandy is the "noble savage," naïve, honest and incorruptible--and totally dependent for his salvation on the white man's ability to deal with the complexities and brutality of the diamond trade. The journalist is about as one-dimensional as her plan to save Africa. "People back home wouldn't buy a diamond if it cost someone their hand," she thinks.

Beyond this mush, however, is a material reality that exposes generations of greed, imperialism and capitalist competition at their gory nastiest. It is this reality which makes the film compelling.

In an early scene, a bunch of hypocrites in suits sit around a long table at the G-8 Conference on Diamonds in Antwerp, discussing the suffering caused when diamonds are used to buy arms for conflicts around the world. Diamonds used to buy weapons are called "blood" or "conflict diamonds."

The stuffed shirts do not take the next logical step, unfortunately, to condemn the fortunes made by the arms industry--particularly in the U.S., which pursues a no-questions-asked policy on arms sales. The setting is 1990s Sierra Leone, where a civil war rages between the corrupt government and the equally corrupt Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

The brutality of this war plays to the illusion of the "white man's burden" crowd that post-colonial Africans are incapable of running their own country. "I know there are some people who say there is something wrong with us under our black skin--that we were better off under the white man," says Vandy. "I understand that the white man wants our diamonds, but will God ever forgive us for what we do to each other?"

A parallel world of equal brutality exists among those who market blood diamonds, and the vicious legacy of colonialism is pervasive. Amputees from Sierra Leone are cast as child soldiers. An RUF soldier tells a newly captured young boy that King Leopold's men used to cut off the hands and arms of the enemy to make them too weak to fight back.

The colonial masters haven't left Sierra Leone. They are still there stealing the resources and controlling the wealth of the country. The higher ups in the diamond cartel live on rambling colonial estates well stocked with servants.

They politely discuss selling arms to the rebels while the government is paying them to capture rebels--and getting diamond concessions as a reward. At the same time they are plotting the next move should anyone get between them and a good diamond.

Skip to the end. The journalist gets her story. There is testimony before the Diamond Conference. The world is saved by the Kimberly Process, in which diamonds are certified from point of discovery to point of sale.

One can measure the success of this process in the applause of the representatives of the so-called legitimate diamond representatives at the conference, who know that even crude attempts at restricting supply allows them to keep prices high. The film's first glimpse of Africans searching the muddy pit mines for diamonds at gunpoint should be a reminder that all resources plucked from the bowels of the earth are drenched in the blood of conflict and oppression--and their value stolen from the labor of those who bring them forth.

No diamond miner will receive better wages as a result of the Kimberly Process, or health care, or a chance at a better life. Civil conflicts will continue, and diamonds will be smuggled as long as the system is driven by profits. Not surprisingly, "many within the diamond industry are playing little more than lip service to the Kimberly Process," says Alex Yearsley, one of the leaders in the campaign against "blood" diamonds.

Meanwhile, the majority of the world's jewels are polished and processed in India by workers in miserable sweatshops earning less than $2 a day. To the estimated 3,000 children breathing the foul air in diamond workshops, conflict-free diamonds are not a huge concern.

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