Deconstructing Conflict: How Blood Diamond Structures Conflict Effectively
August 11, 2016 \ Movies \ 0 Comments
One of the most important elements in story is conflict. If you don’t have a conflict in your story, no one will want to watch it. And creating conflict in a story can be complicated.
It’s easy to create good guys being pursued by bad guys (like T1000 chasing John Connor in Terminator 2, or the Fratelli’s chasing the Goonies), but creating conflict between your good guys (and even within themselves) while they are being pursued is more difficult.
To help get an idea of how stories utilize conflict, I’ve broken down conflict in a movie that excels at it. Here are four sources of conflict in Blood Diamond:
1. Conflict in the Environment
Blood Diamond has an ingenious setting in terms of conflict. We follow our three protagonists (Danny, Solomon, and Maddy) as they progress through the story, while they are surrounded by various groups that conflict directly with them or around them.
The first group is the African government. Largely the government is an inciting agent for conflict around our protagonists because the RUF is constantly attacking the government. If our protagonists are in a “safe” area, they are generally in an area that is protected by government troops and his area is inevitably attacked.
The African government also conflicts directly with our protagonists in a few ways. One way is that they conflict with the protagonist’s interests. When Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) tries to find his family using the publicly available refugee lists, the lists don’t tell indicate where Solomon’s family’s whereabouts. When Solomon finally does find his family, the government refuses to release them until there is a ceasefire declared between the rebel RUF and the government. The government also serves as a way to slow down Danny (Leonardo DiCaprio). When we first meet Danny he is trying to illegally smuggle diamonds, but he is captured and imprisoned. Throughout the rest of the film, Danny must travel under a guise in order to be permitted access to certain areas.
The second group is the RUF. The RUF is the primary source of environment-based conflict in the film. The RUF is a confusing organization. They claim to be fighting for Sierra Leone with the intention of overthrowing the African government that supposedly is loyal to “white masters.” However, to achieve this task they are killing citizens in their skirmishes, chopping off citizen’s hands so they can’t vote, and capturing able-bodied men to work in their mines (which produce diamonds to sell to white nations). Think of them as a chaotic source of conflict. When they show up anything can happen and most certainly people will die. And they show up a lot, AK-47s a-blazin’.
More specific to our protagonists, one of the leaders of an RUF group (Captain Poison) threatens to find and kill Solomon’s family if Solomon does not tell him to location of the large diamond Solomon has hidden. Captain Poison also is part of the RUF group that kidnaps Solomon’s son, Dia, and helps poison Dia’s mind into believing RUF ideals.
The third group is Danny Archer’s old mercenary group run by Colonel Coetzee. This group is after the diamond Solomon has hidden as well, because Danny owes them money.
The fourth group (albeit a minor one) is the tribal militia. These tribal militia appear to be neither RUF, nor government, simply a group of militia protecting their territory. We only see them once when they briefly threaten our protagonists. Still, there’s no reason why the protagonists couldn’t have run into them or another tribal militia at any point throughout the film, so it’s worth establishing them as a potential threat.
2. Conflict of Ideals
None of the three main protagonists share the same ideological outlook on the world. This is important to note because ideals influence how people act.
Danny is the cynic. Much of his life has been spent in the army so presumably the violence he’s committed or witnessed has made him doubt the good in the world and in people. As Solomon says, Danny “will say anything” to get what he wants. Because if people can’t be trusted, then their only value to Danny is that they help him or they get in his way.
Maddy (Jennifer Connelly) is a kind of practical idealist. Maddy wants to stop the flow of blood diamonds, but she wants to do so by writing a story for her magazine, which makes her efforts a little self-serving.
Solomon is the pure idealist. He sees a bright future for his son and believes in the absolute good in him, even when he has evidence to the contrary. All that matters to Solomon is his family.
These differences between the characters matter because it effects how they act and causes them to act contrary to one another at times. Like when Danny instructs Solomon not to investigate the RUF camp for his son, but Solomon goes into the camp anyway. Or how Maddy is reluctant to use her resources as a reporter to help Danny and Solomon until Danny offers information Maddy can use to write her story.
3. Conflict between Characters
Despite the fact that Danny and Solomon have to work together, there is an inherent conflict between the two that is rooted in Africa’s history. Due to the apartheid in South Africa that lasted up until 1994, Danny and Solomon recall the tension that existed between their two races. And whenever the two disagree on something, this racial tension surfaces this as a source of conflict between the two.
We see a lot of build up to this conflict before it explodes. When Danny and Solomon first meet each other Solomon refuses to cooperate with Danny and Danny warns him that without his help Solomon is just “another black man in Africa.” Later, when Solomon attracts the attention of an RUF squad passing by, Danny tells Solomon a story about hunting baboons that compares black people baboons, and then Danny threatens Solomon with a knife. Finally, just before their fight begins Solomon says, “you are not the master,” to which Danny replies, “that’s exactly what I am.”
This additional layer of conflict that is rooted in regional racism is important because it adds another element to the difficulty of the two men working together. Even if their ideals and goals weren’t different, they would still have this layer of conflict to overcome.
There is also a small conflict between Solomon and his son, Dia, after Dia has been kidnapped and brainwashed by the RUF. When they are first reunited, Dia pretends that he doesn’t know his Father and treats him like any other enemy. This small character conflict is important because it is where Solomon’s ideals are tested. Can anyone on the “Godforsaken continent” (as Danny calls it) of Africa be inherently good? Solomon thinks so. And his exchange with his son Dia at gunpoint proves it. He reminds his son of what life was like back home and all the things Dia loved. The more Solomon goes on, the more Dia waivers, and eventually Dia lowers the gun.
4. Direct Conflict
“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” – Raymond Chandler.
Admittedly, a lot of the conflict in Blood Diamond is in the vein of the above Raymond Chandler quote. Half the conflicts that arise involve the RUF showing up with guns. This would be a problem if this was the only kind of conflict the movie had. Fortunately the film has interpersonal, idealogical, and political conflicts as well. And the RUF showing up with guns is simply the consistent threatening source. The RUF attack Solomon’s village, the city, the news bus, at the border, and on the roads; they are relentless.
There’s also a looming threat from Colonel Coetzee’s men. They ransack Danny’s apartment, and they hold Danny, Solomon, and Dia at gunpoint and force them to search for the diamond Solomon has hidden.
When our protagonists are attacked it is often hard to see who is attacking them. This gives the audience the impression that the threat of gunfire could come from anywhere at any time. It creates an unsettling mood as we understand our protagonists are constantly surrounded, as if there is no safety at all, and this is the state in which our characters must push through in order to resolve their deeper conflicts with each other and themselves in order to grow.