Hollywood depicts Africans poorly in "Blood Diamond"

Hollywood depicts Africans poorly in "Blood Diamond"
By Barbara Ransby

December 20, 2006

Critics are touting the movie "Blood Diamond" as a part of a growing genre of socially conscious Hollywood productions. But the film's good message is drowned out by the many bad ones.

The good message is clear: Our frivolous attachment to the world's most expensive gem fuels violence in desperate and impoverished African countries like Sierra Leone.

The bad messages are not about the diamonds but about the people of Africa. In scene after scene, the African population serves as backdrop for the main story about love and ambition involving two white protagonists, a young reporter (Jennifer Connelly) and a tough, ruthless diamond smuggler and former mercenary (Leonardo DiCaprio).

DiCaprio, the hero of the movie, plays Danny Archer, a bitter racist who clings to the good old days of pre-independence Zimbabwe, where he grew up. He calls himself Rhodesian, in defiance of the black majority rule that came with the end of the Apartheid-like system in Rhodesia (renamed Zimbabwe) in 1980.

In one scene, Archer lashes out at his reluctant black collaborator, calling the character played by Djimon Hounsou, a "kaffir," the African equivalent of the n-word.

Archer's goal in life is to steal, swindle or otherwise procure enough diamonds to buy his way out of Africa, a place he sees as God-forsaken and doomed. When there is no other way out, he finally redeems himself in a gesture of generosity at the end.

True, good fictional characters, like real people, are always complex. DiCaprio's character is no different, and the actor's performance is phenomenal.

What is absolutely indefensible, however, is the simplistic portrayal of almost every single black character. Each one is either a mindless killer and pillager or a childlike noble savage and feeble victim.

The talented Hounsou plays the latter. He is cast as hapless, helpless and clueless in the land of his birth. He is a big innocent good guy who would not know whether to run toward or away from gunfire if DiCaprio did not pull him in the right direction.

Moreover, according to the movie, there are no black women in Africa who utter more than two sentences -- either "help me, help me," as one is being kidnapped, or the solicitous proposition to offer sexual services by two women that DiCaprio's character passes on the street.

There is no black agency in this film, except for one schoolmaster who tries to rehabilitate child soldiers only to be shot by one of them five minutes after he appears on screen.

Viewers are left to embrace the age-old racist stereotype that Africa is lost without European sympathy, know-how and might.

Blacks make up more than 90 percent of sub-Saharan Africa. And yet a movie like this shows more diversity among the handful of whites.

There are Africans who are tough and tender, savvy and sinister, and are as complex as the whole range of personalities and motivations that we see in any other group.

For every child soldier and bloodthirsty rebel there are compassionate social workers, reformers, intellectuals, writers and opposition politicians.

They are real people who have fought to save their countries from violence and internal chaos.

With the notable exception of "Hotel Rwanda," it appears that Hollywood is unable or unwilling to make a movie about Africa that acknowledges the full humanity of black African people.

Barbara Ransby is an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of the award-winning biography "Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision" (UNC Press, 2003). She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.