By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
FOR MORE THAN A DECADE NOW, rap and hip-hop have made bling the thing, and no one more than Russell Simmons, who even started his own diamond-encrusted-jewelry line two years ago. “So I said to Warner Bros., get to Russell,” said Bonnie Abaunza. As the Los Angeles–based director of Amnesty International’s celebrity-outreach program, she has been using the studio’s December release of Blood Diamond to focus attention on so-called conflict diamonds (gems mined in war zones and sold to finance the fighting in underdeveloped countries) and the human-rights questions that still surround the diamond industry. So on September 21, when Simmons showed up in a midtown-Manhattan hotel to attend the Clinton Global Initiative Conference, Abaunza seized the moment. “I just saw this movie, Blood Diamond. You could really make a difference on this issue with this generation that buys the diamonds and doesn’t know the history,” she explained to him. Simmons admitted he didn’t know much about the conflict-diamond issue, but confided that “De Beers just contacted me and wants to work with me on this.” He was referring to the world’s largest diamond producer, which also supplies the bling for his jewelry company. Still, Abaunza was hopeful. She followed up with an information-packed letter. She screened the film for him. “He told Warner Bros. that he was moved,” she recalled.
So moved that this powerful black entrepreneur, known for his work on behalf of modern-day civil rights and social justice, announced last week that he will lead “a fact-finding mission” about the diamond industry in South Africa and Botswana from November 26 to December 4.
But the trip is not being sponsored by Amnesty International.
Instead, it’s being organized and underwritten by the Diamond Information Center — which just happens to be the De Beers cartel’s U.S. marketing arm.
“Coincidence? C’mon,” a frustrated Abaunza told me.
All along, the real question behind the scenes of Blood Diamond — an action-adventure pic set against the backdrop of civil war and chaos in the diamond-mining center of 1990s Sierra Leone, starring Leo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou, directed by Ed Zwick and produced by Paula Weinstein — is not whether it will be an Oscar contender (probably) or a critics’ favorite (possibly). It’s just how much mud the World Diamond Council and its flacks and flunkies and friends are planning to throw at the well-intentioned film and its too-liberal-for-the-room credits.
Now the answer is clear: a lot, more than enough to dirty its awards chances.
It’s rare in Hollywood, home to most things horrible, to have good vs. evil play out offscreen as well as on. (As opposed to seeing this as a level playing field where the really rich are ganging up on the really rich, so, in one sense, they deserve each other.) Yet here, the tactic of choice, already evidenced, is to smear the film’s production by accusing everyone involved of exploiting the Africans in much the same execrable way the diamond industry has done for decades — even though the director, the stars, the producers, and even Alan Horn, the studio mogul who pushed the project, are known for their progressive activism, and even though not one do-gooder, Amnesty International (the Nobel Peace Prize–winning organization), but two, Global Witness (the Nobel Peace Prize–nominated org), both endorsed the film. But, in terms of Oscar, damaging allegations, especially those smelling of hypocrisy, can stink up an Academy Awards campaign. And that’s what is happening.
Witness October 23’s Page Six charge that Warner Bros. reneged on a promise to provide prosthetic limbs to all the orphaned African teenage and child amputees who appeared as extras in the movie, or at the very least planned to delay making good until the start of publicity for the film. It’s juicy gossip, made all the more tasty by the spectre of all those limbless kids crying out to Hollywood for new legs and arms.
Zwick was appalled, not because of that image, but because it wasn’t true. “This is a very cynical and appalling tack to take, and in the worst taste, especially given what we all tried to do while we were there,” he told me by phone from London, describing the “Blood Diamond Fund” that cast and crew set up with their own money, which was matched by Warner Bros., to fund good works in the African communities where the pic filmed. “What I do think is, this is the work of someone who clearly bears the film ill will.”
Amnesty’s Abaunza called the smear “beyond loathsome” because she also knew it was false. “Anybody in the entertainment industry who knows Ed and Paula and Leo and Djimon and Jennifer would know that these people would never, ever condone anything like this. Neither they nor we would risk our reputations,” she told me. “I believe a line has been crossed. To give the impression that this despicable act was done against people who’ve already suffered tremendously is just unconscionable, and whoever planted that story should be held accountable.”