Africa was known as “The Dark Continent” during the Victorian Era, believed by Europeans to be a land where even the slightest trace of civilization tends to collapse under madness and savagery. It seems especially common for Europeans to assume that anyone who ventures into Africa would then sink into an irrevocable state of delirium. Such notion was amplified by Joseph Conrad, who, in Heart of Darkness, took Africa as a land so free from moral restraints that no civility could stand from being pulverized by its darkness.
Blood Diamond, dating a hundred years after Heart of Darkness, presents a different view. Although the film seems to faithfully support the conventional view of Africa as a place that forces its inhabitants into madness, a closer examination of Blood Diamond shows that, quite the opposite of depicting Africa as The Dark Continent, the film actually rebuts the view by emphasizing the underlying grace of the land. Blood Diamond sends out the message that rather then being the other way around, it is the colonizers of Africa who are forcing the continent into its present state of violence and madness.
Through contrasting between parts of Africa with assorted degrees of western influence, director Edward Zwick shows that Africa without colonization would be a land of peace and grace. This contrast is established between the depiction of an RUF (Revolutionary United Front) headquarters and an elusive school that lies within the immutable jungles of Africa. Zwick uses costume to represent western ideals brought to Africa through colonization when portraying the RUF headquarters.
When Danny Archer first gets off the plane to do business with Commander Zero, the audience is introduced to a group of African teenagers dressed in shockingly familiar looking attires. Indeed Captain Rambo, a member of the RUF, is dressed in no way different from any North American boy. His clothing without doubt emulates the fashion of North American hip-hop generation. His wide sunglasses, baggy pants, and chain necklace all too well indicate western influence. It is only when he holds up a gun that the audience senses a strong odour of irony.
The gangster image that prevails this RUF headquarters contrasts with a peaceful African community in the midst of the jungle, a community in which the effect of colonization is less apparent. In fact, Zwick speaks of this community as an “island of sanity”. The term “island” denotes not only a sense of isolation from the atrocity of the surrounding world, but also a sense of isolation from western influence. It is within this community that a group of child soldiers are carefully returned to life.
Of these two African communities, the one that displays a crave for western ideals is the one that rears violence and madness, whereas the primitive jungle described as the very medium of suffocation in Heart of Darkness becomes the place where sanity is restored. Through contrasting between a world greatly influenced by colonization and a world that is not yet penetrable to its grasp, Blood Diamond clearly conveys the idea that it is the white people who are jeopardizing Africa’s graceful soul with their intrusion, and it is the colonizers of Africa who are ultimately responsible for any violence seen there today.
Zwick also uses various types of shots to establish Africa as a graceful land. Although scenes of RUF troops committing heinous violence are omnipresent in Blood Diamond, Zwick does not forget to show what Africa was like before war and colonization. The use of master shots often precedes any scenes of violence in the film to constantly remind the audience of the majestic panorama of Africa. Shots of grand canyons, peaceful sunset, and misty cities again and again take the audience’ breath away.
These shots are images of Africa entirely different from those underscoring problems of poverty and hunger commonly seen in media, thereby are all the more shocking. It is indeed hard for one to find a trace of savagery or madness in this landscape. Without these shots, one would laugh with an air dismissal when Dia says to his father “teacher says our country (Sierra Leone) was built to be an utopia”. But with these breathtaking images, the audience cannot help but to ruminate over Dia’s belief that “when the war is over, our country will become a paradise.
Apart from using master shots, Blood Diamond also employs wide shots to convey similar ideas. The film opens with a wide shot of fishermen working against sunrise. In the shot, the black silhouettes moving quietly yet arduously against the breaking dawn of the sky effectively convey a sense of peace. By integrating various types of shots into the content of the film in a meaningful manner, Zwick successfully delivers his desire to show what Africa was like before colonization. These shots are key to establishing Africa as a land of peace before its colonizer’s arrival.
Zwick also conveys the idea that it is the Europeans who are responsible Africa’s present chaotic state by probing the different meanings of diamond in Africa and in Europe. A character responsible for this layer of the film is a sadistic RUF mine general– General Poison. Following after the priceless diamond like an animal after the smell of carcass, General Poison is depicted as the very heart of distortion and madness throughout the film. In the prison scene, Zwick’s use of lighting and colour effectively turns General Poison into the icon of animosity similar to that described in Heart of Darkness.
The prison scene is dominated by a sickly luscious combination of brown, green, and red, creating a canvas that is hunted by greed and fear. Here, Zwick plays around with the employment of fluorescence light to give General Posion the aura of a mad dog as he barks at Solomon Vandy. Yet General Poison reveals something rather astonishing near the end– he craves for that diamond not because of greed, like the diamond dealers in London, but because he wants to escape his own cruelty. “You think I am a devil, but it is only because I have been in hell.
I want to get out, and you will help me”. This is what the general says to Solomon, and the audience learns that he too is a prisoner suffering from the effects of colonization. General Poison craves for that priceless diamond not because of the wealth it shall bring, but because it is his only ticket out. As soon as this is revealed, the audience learns that his devilish behaviour is not the result of his native instinct; rather, it is the result of having to cope with the values of white men. It is white people, the colonizers, who are forcing him into madness.
Suffocated by the atrocity of colonization, he must act cruelly to free himself from his own madness. This internal irony shows that Africa is not a continent with the natural tendency to drive its inhabitants into madness; rather, the madness seen in the film is only the result of Africans trying to cope with the values of their colonizers. In Blood Diamond, Zwick effectively combines style and content to show that Africa is not a continent of darkness and savagery; rather, the moral dilapidation seen there today is the result of colonization.
Indeed instead of pushing those who venture into its land beyond the boundaries of civilization, Africa is itself a prisoner and a sufferer. It is with productions like Blood Diamond that the images outlined in Heart of Darkness become increasingly relegated from the status of a journal to that of a fiction. It is with productions like Blood Diamond that the truth about Africa is slowly revealed. In a way, Blood Diamond has given Africa a testimony of its grace that is rather long overdue.