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Hard rocks

Movies | Blood Diamond takes a swipe at diamonds both clean and conflicted

Issue: "Cellblock campaign," Dec. 23, 2006

In a brief rest from AK-47-toting rebels, a war-hardened Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) tries to make sense of human nature from the bloody chaos around him. Are people naturally good or bad? Nah, he concludes: "They're just people."

Most of Blood Diamond (rated R for strong violence and language) has the same tenor-frequent near-misses at profundity, and consequent lapses into the Africa-as-hellhole genre. As pure entertainment, the film is both heart-rending and enjoyable. As an advocacy piece against conflict diamonds-the illicit diamond mining that funds war-it's middling.

The plot follows diamond smuggler Archer and fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) through 1999 Sierra Leone as they try to uncover a valuable pink diamond. At the time, conflict diamonds funded rebels there and war in Liberia and Guinea.

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If the film falls short on the big messages, many of its details are authentic: Archer's background as South African mercenary, his slang, and (thankfully) his accent. The rebels' limb-hacking, drunken rampages and use of child soldiers are striking on-screen. So is Vandy's reverence for education as a way to advance, distinctive among poor Africans.

But Vandy's purity contrasted with Archer's cynicism carries a touch of Rousseau's noble savage. In keeping with Hollywood cosmology, the biggest villain is the big diamond corporation Van de Kaap, representing the real-life giant De Beers.

Here is where the film is best viewed as more historical than current. Conflict diamonds have always been only a fraction of legitimate diamond mining, whose center is in southern Africa. When public knowledge of conflict diamonds grew, these countries instituted the Kimberly Process, a way to certify legal diamonds and protect their trade. According to Global Witness, conflict diamonds accounted for 15 percent of the world's illegal diamond trade about a decade ago. Now they account for less than 1 percent. For that reason, Blood Diamond's advocacy-and musings on the human condition-may be too shallow.

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