The Movie and Russell Simmons
By Sokari Ekine
Let's reflect for a moment on hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who is in the diamond business now with a jewelry store, Simmons Jewelry Company, and has founded the Diamond Empowerment Fund.
Imagine my surprise and the television-viewing irony, when after grabbing my keys and jacket on my way to see Blood Diamond, there he was at a press conference on ABC News, holding hands with his bejeweled, estranged wife, Kimora Lee, and discussing his recent fact-finding trip to diamond mines in Botswana and South Africa.
I headed to the Cineplex with a funny taste in my mouth and a troubling question: Of all the industries on the African continent ripe for investment to "help Africans," quoting Mr. Simmons, why diamonds?
But I'll get back to Russell Simmons in a moment.
Blood Diamond, directed by Edward Zwick, is a mesmerizing personal account set in and around Sierra Leone in 1999 at the height of its civil war, a conflict that took the lives of tens of thousands and saw the displacement of more than 2 million people (well over one-third of the population), many of whom became refugees in neighboring countries.
It's the story of Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a humble fisherman, eking out a living with his young family, who has enough vision and foresight to almost risk everything to rescue his family and save his son; a white former soldier of fortune and mercenary, Danny Archer, now an amoral diamond smuggler, portrayed masterfully by Leonardo DiCaprio
; and the American journalist Maddy Bowen ( Jennifer Connelly), who, conflicted and in love, unveils the human misery occurring at the hands of civil strife and African mineral exploitation.
Danny and Solomon's paths cross early on while both are in prison; Danny is arrested while trying to smuggle diamonds into Liberia, posing as a National Geographic journalist and Solomon, forcibly removed from his razed village and now an illegal diamond laborer is also imprisoned. Danny hears an RUF soldier, Captain Poison, yelling at Solomon, asking him: Where is the stone?
Therein lies the cinematic flaw, and yes, you've witnessed this before.
Solomon is introduced as an idyllic family man whose life is forever changed once the RUF destroy his village, shooting fleeing women and children and burning everything in sight. He narrowly escapes losing a limb by being identified as an ideal candidate for the back-breaking diamond "mining" labor—which literally means standing in riverbeds, sifting sediment for minerals. And the less desirables, one-by-one, have limbs chopped off when they're not useful as child soldiers or mine workers.
Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons
We are introduced to the noble African, not unlike the black American protagonist, decent and upstanding, little sex appeal, and with loads of dignity and righteous anger to spare. Thus unfolds the classic Africa saga, an almost unimaginable story of courage and horror becomes a lush, breathtaking African backdrop of white redemption; black, power-hungry, violent, psychopathic rebels; and the good-as-gold, innocent African caught up in the madness.
Solomon spends his days sifting in the muddy river bed and one day finds a huge pink diamond while his captured son, Dia, begins the miseducation and training as a child soldier.
The children are beaten, given drugs, and told that their families are dead. The brainwashing scenes are devastating; he is favored by the same mercurial, violent Captain Poison, and we watch as little by little, Dia's childhood and humanity dissipate through indoctrinations like being blindfolded and given an AK-47 to simply fire freely with an innocent person on the other side of the barrel.
This juxtaposition of father and son, both victims of a nation at war which is itself fueled by the global greed for its natural resources, and the trajectory of finding a precious stone makes for a compelling tale of deliverance and survival. Solomon's journey is that much more incredible given that it is based on actual events.
Unfortunately, that's not good enough for Hollywood. What stands in its place is equally as compelling: Danny Archer.
What makes Danny tick is revealed as he stands at a beach bar in Sierra Leone, flirting with journalist Maddy Bowen, who immediately sees his connection to the blood diamond story she's trying to uncover. When he tells her that he's from Rhodesia and she jokingly reminds him that we now call the country Zimbabwe, she's met with a cold glance.
Danny is that complex white African who loves Africa equally to any black African; his emigrating ancestors tilled the soil, fought the wars, and lived and died in Africa. But his relationship is complicated by his presence as a "white African," the sheer history of white people on the continent, and all the obligatory privilege that that brings.
Orphaned very young, he becomes a soldier in South Africa and talks about fighting alongside black soldiers in Angola. This history that he believes gives him the right and pride to defend Africa is the same one that leaves him unsettled and willing to do the unthinkable to leave the continent.
He is a complicated man with a killer smile. He is cunning and sleazy and violent on one hand and befriends Solomon, promising to help him track down his family if he leads him to the hidden diamond; on the other hand, he reminds Solomon that his white status opens doors and gets him close to places where Solomon otherwise would never have access.
Danny will never be on the winning team and will always be a phantom of sorts. He is despised as a pariah by the locals and viewed as a kind of plumber, doing the dirty work for the precious gem multinationals, international diamond traders, and the corrupt governments and business people that push the stones past borders and legal restrictions.
Danny knows he's a throw-away, easily snuffed out if he makes too much noise or if the authorities start asking questions that lead past his bottom-feeder role in the chain. His weariness and dispassion is summed up when he, half-jokingly, asks Maddy if she's in Africa "to make a difference" and later turns to the bartender and tells him, "But TIA…this is Africa."
But after meeting Solomon, he's all about finding the stone; he has a ticket out of Africa.
The film's inability to be solely Danny or Solomon's story flattens the overall character complexity. Maddy Bowen is getting to the bottom of a gripping story and spends a lot of time chastising Danny while at the same time falling in love with him. Her role is a critical one for Solomon, but in the movie she's reduced to an idealistic helper, bothered by a lot but helping Danny manipulate everyone in his path to get to the stone.
The implausibility of their relationship and Solomon simply following along against the visual horror all around diminishes the fact that this is based on a factual account—his account.
The lack of one strong narrative is replaced with horror-show violence, explosions, cat and mouse chases, scenes of brute force, and the disturbing post-pillage hedonism of the RUF soldiers.
There are some gestures of "goodwill," perhaps inserted to prove to audiences that some people outside of Africa at that time were consumed with more than the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal; the convened Conference On Diamonds discusses the phenomena of thousands of innocent lives lost each time a natural resource is discovered in Africa, i.e. ivory, gold, rubber, diamonds (ain't that the truth).
In a show of doing-the-right-thing, while the head of the Van Der Kamp cartel (translated: DeBeers) is at the table in support of stopping the violence, Solomon, Maddy, and Danny, on the run from rebels, land upon a hidden oasis in the middle of nowhere where a soft-spoken African is rehabilitating former child soldiers.
For newcomers to the conflict diamond issue, the film does a good job of spelling out the basic formula: conflict diamonds are smuggled illegally to Liberia (Liberian President Charles Taylor played a key role here) under the blind eye of corrupt officials, where a middle man is bribed to smuggle them to Antwerp, Belgium.
They are then transported legally to be cut and polished in India whilst the London Stock Exchange allows the DeBeers cartel engine to hum along by keeping the majority of diamonds off the market so they remain rare and always high in demand, politely called an "artificial scarcity." We learn that the majority of diamonds are actually stored in vaults in London!
The "conflict" is the illegal mining by forced labor for minerals, set in place by rebel soldiers in conflict zones, in this case the RUF. As the primary military focus, diamond mining became a major fund-raising exercise. Diamond profits buy weapons and guarantee future corruption, all fueled by greed and the demand for precious stones.
Danny and Solomon find the diamond, but only after a reunion with Dia that almost costs their lives. And for the naysayers who believe that the process is no longer flawed now that the Kimberley Process exists, be reminded of South African Colonel Coetzee's army in the movie and the ease with which he does an air strike to divert attention to get to Danny and the diamond. They have a deal to split the profit 50/50.
Like in Crash and most recently Babel (an excellent movie), Blood Diamond shows how Americans are unknowingly soaking up some very complicated issues through the way our lives intersect and how one deed, large or small, can take on a life of its own. The challenge for the director is to ensure that the story stays personal and while Blood Diamond had that opportunity, it just couldn't decide whether to stay true to Solomon's journey or to box office proceeds.
I really like Djimon Hounsou and I'm certain he's sick of being so damn proud all the time. Sidney Poitier suffered that fate decades ago. But in the end, it's still Solomon's story, however diminished his portrayal on screen. Danny faces his demons and makes the ultimate sacrifice, and Maddy gets her story that unveils the horror to the world.
But back to Russell Simmons. He's spent a lot of time recently criticizing Blood Diamond, reading letters from Nelson Mandela and asking us to look at all sides of the issue, concerned that the film will scare people away from purchasing legitimate diamonds.
Meanwhile, Zwick has accused Simmons of being a puppet for the diamond industry. A local radio DJ joked that Russell wants in on the bling-bling monopoly of Jacob the Jeweler, the jeweler to many, many hip-hop/rap artists who was arrested in June by the FBI for money laundering. Makes you wonder what kind of diamonds he's dealt with…
(A direct quote): "Simmons has responded to Zwick's comments and maintains that the film will scare people away from purchasing legitimate diamonds. The mining process of the precious stones have become profitable industries in some African countries.
"This is the arrogance of Warner Brothers pictures," Simmons told AllHipHop.com. "They were selfish self-centered, greedy and hurtful to the indigenous people of Africa. This messaging should have been changed after Nelson Mandela and other African Presidents asked Warner Brothers to change it. Period. I am going to continue to focus on the positive that can come out of this dialogue and work to help empower black Africa."
Wow. I guess I might be moved if he didn't own that jewelery store.
Three Questions for Mr. Simmons:
1) There are still over 200,000 child soldiers in Africa. That's a mighty problem to overcome with the tools that are fueling their recruitment. What's the plan to save them?
2) And what to do about DeBeers? Is there a possibility Russell, a mere distributor with loads of celebrity in the operandus of a century-old cartel, might convince the corporate heads to flood the market with all those diamonds that are locked away? Maybe more Africans could afford to buy their natural resource or better yet, each get a free diamond.
3) There's a jewelry store on every corner in the U.S., so what's so special about the Simmons Jewelry Company? Does he have franchise plans? Is there a possibility for a chain in Africa?
But God save Africa from good intentions. Can the continent handle any more (especially those with a profit motive buried somewhere deep)?
I realized after the movie that the bad taste in my mouth was the fact that an even wealthier black American, Oprah Winfrey, "helping Africans" is taking a very different approach and, might I add, a longer-term investment—education—that has a much better payoff.
Alas, I'm reminded of Michael Jordan at the dawn of the Air Jordan Empire (FYI, the 2006 Air Jordan XXI costs $175.00!), touring sweatshops in Asia with the Nike Corporation and giving them a clean bill of health. Among activists, he's now known as the world's most successful salesman of sweatshop-made shoes.
See also De Beers and the Dirty Face of African Diamonds
The Nigerian-born Sokari Ekine is arguably the best female writer in Blogosphere. Educated in Britain and America, Ekine is a human rights and feminist activist. She blogs frequently as Black Looks.
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