January 12, 2007

Noumena who? + a review

I'm back! California was excellent, as California always is, but the new semester looms just over the horizon of next week, and so I have returned to Indiana.

And to not totally waste your time reading this useless post, let's start things up again with a review of Blood diamond.

Over the past decade or so, we've seen a growing microgenre of films I'll call White People Realising How Badly They've Fucked Things Up, or WPRHBTFTU. Only that's really awkward, so I think I'll just call them Liberal Guilt films. That term might be slightly misleading, but I think it does generally capture the audience and message these films are meant to portray: they're made by and for liberal, relatively wealthy, white people in the US and Europe, and the point is to make that audience feel guilty about the way we have collectively fucked up some other part of the world, in nominal but probably ultimately futile hopes that we'll go fix things. Prior to the release of Blood diamond, I would say that Three kings was the best example in this microgenre. An inconvenient truth also falls into it, as do Hotel Rwanda, Syriana, and Constant gardener.

Films in the Liberal Guilt microgenre have a number of factors that must be carefully managed. First, a complex history of several forms of exploitation must be represented, for the sake of an easily-digestible narrative, by a relatively contained historical act. In Blood diamond, this exploitation is the exchange of military support for both sides in factional conflicts for mineral wealth over the past three centuries or so, and the single historical event are the circumstances of the civil war in Sierra Leone in 1999. Portrayed awkwardly, the result might have been an oversimplification -- historical, systematic exploitation is turned into an isolated incident. Blood diamond avoids this, though mostly by bracketing the film between a few expository scenes.

Next, and perhaps more importantly, when whites are portrayed as the primary agents there is a risk that the non-white population will be portrayed as either their passive victims or their brutish auxiliaries. Constant gardener suffered this flaw, with its complete lack of fully-developed black African characters. Blood diamond occasionally comes close to having the same problem, though it's hard to tell for sure whether it's crossed the line. The primary narrative drive of the film is the recovery of a large diamond discovered by Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a black African, so that he can be reunited with his family, by selling it to Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a white African. Archer often takes the lead and the initiative, expecting Vandy to simply do as he's told. He does so, but there are moments when it is clear that Vandy is not really interested in the diamond at all, is helping Archer because he feels it is necessary to get his family back, and is far more aware than Archer of the racism implicit in their `partnership'. This subtle self-consciousness might have redeemed Blood diamond from any accusations of racism, except that the filmmaker has Archer, not Vandy, develop the not-so-intricate plot that plays out over the final fifteen minutes of the film and gives Archer, not Vandy, a romantic subplot, thereby designating Archer, not Vandy, the protagonist.

While a bit needlessly long (143 minutes, and half an hour really should have been cut out), Blood diamond is quite watchable, and is certainly successful in instilling guilt in its target liberal audience. I highly recommend both seeing this film and spending an hour or so afterwards talking about it over something hot and caffeinated; while very much an action film, it is one that requires a fair amount of processing afterwards. As a good film should be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad you liked it. So did I.

For a very early entrant in the liberal guilt microgenre, check out Oliver Stone's Salvador. It's a prototypical example of the type of movie you're talking about.