‘Popcorn politics’? It sticks in the throat

Blood Diamond, the Hollywood human rights thriller set in war-torn Sierra Leone, patronises both Africans and Western cinemagoers.

Philip Cunliffe

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In recent years, a thriving Hollywood genre has developed that gives us the usual fare of blood, babes and bullets, but neatly packaged in pristine human rights lessons and sanctimonious morality tales. This isn’t any old action movie – this is the ethical action movie, complete with human rights heroes, abusers and victims. Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly, is the latest in a growing list of mainstream human rights thrillers and ethical action flicks, which includes The Constant Gardener (2005), The Interpreter (2005), Tears of the Sun (2003), Beyond Borders (2003), Black Hawk Down (2001) and Behind Enemy Lines (2001).

Blood Diamond is set in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, towards the end of a bloody decade of coups, insurgency and counter-insurgency that convulsed the country following a 1991 rebellion by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) – an insurrection that turned out to be driven by diamond plundering more than national liberation. The diamond smuggling that kept the RUF in business inspired one of the great rallying cries for ethical consumption in the 1990s – the demand to close down trade in ‘conflict diamonds’.

Blood Diamond centres around Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a diamond smuggler and ex-South African paratrooper who is at first obnoxious and hard-bitten, so as to make his eventual conversion into gun-touting human rights hero all the more spectacular and uplifting. But this is only after having overcome the obligatory childhood trauma suffered at the hands of Mugabe’s revolutionaries back in ‘Rhodesia’. Still, Archer is almost likeable compared to his intrepid side-kick, the crusading photo-journalist Maddy Bowen, played with luminescent worthiness by Jennifer Connelly, who responds to Archer’s cynical jibes by explaining to him that she ‘just gives a shit’ about Africa, Bosnia, Afghanistan or wherever.

The token black character is Soloman Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), an achingly good and simple fisherman trying to hold his family together in the midst of the conflict and thoroughly mystified by the white man’s greed for the gemstones; how can they compare to the wealth of having all your family together in one hut? The plot follows Archer trying to get his hands on a priceless pink diamond ‘the size of a bird’s egg’, of which only Solomon knows the whereabouts. In return for guiding them through RUF territory, Archer helps Solomon rescue his son, kidnapped by the RUF.

As an action flick, Blood Diamond isn’t too bad. There’s some good acting and gripping battle sequences – that is, if you can bear two and a half hours of Africans depicted either as simple black folks whose earthy wisdom reminds white folks of the good things in life, or as murderous human rights abusers who need putting down.

Indeed, underlying all these ethical action movies is the odious idea that we can remain morally righteous while blasting away human rights abusers by the dozen. But where Blood Diamond really goes awry is in packaging what would otherwise be run-of-the-mill Hollywood entertainment into nothing less than moral redemption for the audience. So this fictional film ends not only with details of the real-life policy initiative designed to curtail the trade in conflict diamonds (the 2003 Kimberly Process), but also with an injunction to the audience to individually pressurise the diamond industry as consumers, to ensure that ‘conflict diamonds’ are expunged from the market.

There is a deeply patronising assumption underlying the crass injunctions of this ‘popcorn foreign policy’, as Mary Riddell of the Observer approvingly calls it (1). Ending an action movie with the demand that the audience act as ethical consumers seems to presume that the popcorn-munching masses can only be jolted out of their moral torpor if the ‘serious issues’ are given to them in a sugared pill of famous celebs and mindless violence.

Moreover, the fact that these ethical action movies revolve around Western characters as the active agents, while the Third World characters are either passive victims or psychotic human rights abusers, reveals a deeper truth about ethical foreign policy itself. Just as human rights is about shoring up the moral authority of Western political elites and ‘ethical consumption’ is about assuaging Western middle class guilt, the fact that it is always Westerners who are at the centre of these ethical action films shows that the ‘issues’ in question belong to the West rather than the developing world. Far-flung locations and Third World extras simply become the scenery, a backdrop against which Western crises can be projected and narcissistically explored in the guise of doing good overseas.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A critique of contemporary international relations (UCL Press, 2007). Read more about the book here.

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