There were chortles of delight from the audience (on a Sunday afternoon in central South Africa) when the silver screen, usually dedicated to New York cityscapes and car chases featuring American heroes, filled up instead with Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred waterfront (Table Mountain swooping up behind Jennifer Connnelly), or with a Cape winefarm. Okay the armed guards lining the estate’s driveway irked a little, but Arnold Vosloo (as colonel Coetzer) barking a few incidental commands in Afrikaans made people like me who knew what he was saying chuckle. Leonardo di Caprio did his best to sound Southern African, but the award goes to director Edward Zwick, who captured the darkness and violence of Africa, and I think, some of the heart of its darkness.
The flick opens, appropriately enough with a flame being scratched into existence, bringing light onto the screen, and light into the darkness of our ignorance of Africa. Zwick immediately sketches the carnage at work in Africa in general, and Sierra Leone in particular. The cinematography of these gritty, action scenes smells of smoke and blood but Zwick places the audience into the centre of the shuddering action.
The casting for this flick is good, with DiCaprio certainly appearing the part of the hard as nails, jungle-smart diamond smuggler Danny Archer, and Senegalese Djimon Hounsou (The Island) on the run as Solomon Vandy, in search of his family. Dark haired Jennifer Connelly (who you might remember from A Beautiful Mind) brings sensitivity to the story, without making it too sentimental, as a conscientious reporter.
I read a review that criticized the film for trying to tell too many stories – and it does address the problem of refugees, child soldiers, world intransigence (to Africas) and the politics that perpetuate war in Africa – but I felt that Zwick told a brilliant, moving and meaningful story. I particularly enjoyed the last third of this hardcore flick, where Danny, with Solomon at his side, hikes through the African landscape, and his inner journey goes into high gear. This is not a silly popcorn movie like so many that are out there.
The visceral action scenes are just one of the reasons why this flick appears as authentic as it does. The number of South African actors (such as Danny’s companion in the bus among many others) add to the powerful realism of the flick, along with the showcasing of Africa’s forte, it’s superb natural beauty, and it’s tragic soldiers, sewers and slums. It is high time that Hollywood moves beyond sets and studios, and into the great sights and scenes of the world, particularly beyond the big cities, and particularly into unthought-of Africa. Directors like Zwick and writers like John Grisham are amongst the first to move confidently and idiosyncratically away from communicating purely for entertainment, towards a process of educating through entertainment, informing through a more realistic invention of the genre. Given the greater worldly conundrums like Climate Change (championed by Al Gore and others), it’s high time we become more discerning and more serious about our entertainment.
The most memorable image in this three hour flick is a bloody white hand, collapsing into the African Earth. There is something about that image that is Danny’s mantra: TIA: This Is Africa. Meanwhile, just north of my country, in Botswana, the local Bushmen are fighting against the government to stay on their familial lands. Why? Because the desert, their desert, is filled with diamonds. Blood Diamond is a relevant film, and hopefully, the first of many for Africa.