By Contributor on December 20, 2006
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.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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