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.”
Abaunza went on the record with me about her suspicions as to who was the culprit. “I don’t think it happens to be a coincidence that, as we get closer to the movie’s release, this story happens, and so many stories pitting the diamond industry against this movie in September and October happened. Yes, I think this story was planted by the World Diamond Council, and I think this story was planted in an attempt to impact the Oscar buzz on this film. But there’s no way to prove it. And the stories are going to get nastier.”
She was right. Two days after I spoke to her, Page Six followed up with an even worse item, describing how “the producers of the upcoming Blood Diamond not only exploited amputees in Africa, they created a new amputee.” Only this time, the gossip was partly true. Because of a tragic on-set accident, South African native and professional special-effects technician supervisor Edward Visage, working with the second unit of production, severely injured his hand. Doctors determined it could not be saved after he was evacuated to the hospital. The Page Six item quoted an unnamed source claiming that “Warner Bros. was too cheap to bring in a special-effects guy from the U.S.,” a charge that the studio denied to me. “The accident was investigated by local authorities, and it was determined that proper procedures were followed,” said a spokesperson. “The studio has provided Mr. Visage with appropriate assistance and compensation. He is currently back to work.” It’s the kind of awful episode that reinforces everyone’s queasy feelings about Hollywood, which manages to maim or kill people working on its movies at an alarming rate. That it happened on Blood Diamond is just the sort of tragedy which the film’s enemy can exploit.
THE TIMING OF THE FILM’S RELEASE, moved up from December 15 to December 8, is a nightmare for the diamond industry since the Christmas season accounts for up to 50 percent of a fine jeweler’s sales and 75 percent of the profit. And then Valentine’s Day will coincide with Blood Diamond’s Oscar campaign. I’ve heard estimates that the World Diamond Council has earmarked a $15-million-plus spin campaign to deep-six Blood Diamond’s impact by underwriting informational Web sites, position papers, international confabs, high-profile newspaper ads, new marketing from J. Walter Thompson, and PR from Hollywood’s Allan Meyer. In the past, Meyer has been on the side of the angels, albeit rich angels, handling such hot-button political movies as Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Brian Grazer’s The Da Vinci Code. But for the past year, his job has consisted of crushing Zwick’s movie and its message. He disavowed to me any World Diamond Council responsibility for the Page Six items and even claims, “We and Warner Bros. have no fundamental disagreements.” But Meyer did outline recently for NPR exactly how to plan an anti-pic campaign, and, from the looks of things, it was followed to a tee. “Tell your story first .?.?. Get out in front of the release so you frame the issue .?.?. Start planning your response 12 to 18 months before the movie comes out .?.?. Start talking about the issues that matter to you in a context that has nothing with the movie.”
After seeing a leaked script, Meyer met with Warner’s PR. But I also have in hand a copy of a letter addressed to Zwick jointly from the chairmen/CEOs of the WDC and the international diamond watchdog group known as Kimberley Process, respectively. It specifically asks the director to include a “written broadcast message at the end of the film, and in accompanying promotional language” — in other words, a disclaimer — “to provide some acknowledgment of the huge changes that have occurred in the diamond trade since 1999” in Sierra Leone. (Interestingly, tacked to the end of the October 23 Page Six item was a denial that De Beers had ever demanded the disclaimer. True, it wasn’t De Beers but the WDC that asked for one — although the diamond cartel does provide most of the funding for the trade lobbying group.)
WHAT PAGE SIX, or any media, hasn’t written is, as I first reported on DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com: What really happened on the set of Blood Diamond.
The production arrived in Africa ready to film for the next four months in two places: South Africa’s South Zulu Nataal and Mozambique’s Maputo. “To be there is to want to do something. So, to be in those places for that length of time, you can’t help but be moved by what you see every day,” Zwick told me. “And all of us together just talked about what we ourselves could do. And knowing all the while that would turn out to be a drop in the bucket compared to the needs all around us. But the need was so great.”
At the suggestion of the Mozambican production manager Nick Laws, cast and crew contributed to a fund. “There was no twisting of arms. And then we asked the studio to match it, which they agreed to,” Zwick recalled. The “Blood Diamond Fund” totals in the six figures. (I’ve heard varying numbers, ranging from $200,000 up to $500,000.) “That may seem trivial,” Zwick emphasized, knowing how mean that seems compared to, say, the tens of millions of dollars Leo earns on big studio films, “but the Blood Diamond production was also pumping as much as $40 million straight into the local economy. Cash for building roads, hiring drivers, paying for hotel accommodations. When you make a film in a place where the need is desperate, money is like a shot in the arm of the local economy.” Since its inception, and continuing even now past the end of filming, the fund is being administered by a Maputo-based international accountancy firm under the supervision of Laws and João Ribeiro, the production managers in Mozambique.
So far, says Zwick, “The fund has targeted specific needs in those villages, and some neighborhoods that were more impoverished where we had worked. To wit: One neighborhood was in terrible need of a well being dug, another neighborhood needed help with a septic system, still another had to repair road damage that was making it hard for villagers to go to and from work, still another needed a classroom repaired, and so on. And replacement of prosthetics was among the them.”
Zwick and Warner Bros. told me the fund hasn’t finished assessing needs or administering funds, and filling more prosthetic needs is on the list. While the studio maintains it made no specific promise to provide prosthetics to every extra who needed them, it assured me that money from the fund has already gone to children’s organizations that disperse prosthetics. All of the dough raised from Blood Diamond premieres in the U.S. and England will go to related charities.
But the diamond industry has a lot more to worry about than Leo and Jennifer and Ed and Paula’s pic. These days, a fresh wave of MCs is backing away from the urban stylin’ promulgated by Simmons et al. Both Lupe Fiasco, in “Conflict Diamonds,” and Kanye West, in “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” sing the same anti-war-for-profit message. Soon, very soon, bling may no longer mean cha-ching.