Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Europe on a Million Bodies a Day

Shimmering black-and-white in wide widescreen. Kanye West descends upon Prague like some kind of avenging black vampire, his preppy collar, and the gull wing doors of his vintage Mercedes, turned straight up. Audacious. The track is a collision of Shirley Bassey singing the theme song from the '71 James Bond flick Diamonds are Forever and a driving beat West stitched out of the John Barry original. This is ecstatic hip-hop narcissism gone global. So why does the music video leave me feeling so heartbroken?

Diamonds from Sierra Leone sounds like an average boast rap but, as a music video, it is a devastating reproach to centuries of European pillage and exploitation. No, it's not one of those videos. Those "Motherland" videos. No black Jesus, no dreadlocks, nobody with duct tape on his eyes or mouth, holding up a sign that says "Amadou." In short, no tired-ass Afrocentrism. This video, directed by Hype Williams, is an express tour of bloody European opulence. The camera circles Kanye magisterially as he tromps through cobblestone streets; it dollies into low-angle shots of exquisite religious architecture and sculpture. Light rakes these structures from strange angles, bringing out their monstrous beauty. Kanye looks right at home in all this splendor. But he is not at home, the visuals tell us, almost as stealthily as Outkast's Hey Ya told us that nothing can outrun time or death.

Pretty, immaculate white tourists and locals go diamond shopping. A white couple out of a Zales commercial gaze at each other lovingly in their expensive hotel suite as the man slips a diamond ring on the woman's finger, proposing marriage, looks like. But, like some kind of super-Stigmata, blood starts streaming from her fingers. She screams inaudibly as the apparition of a black child dressed in rags appears, eyes marble black. Several such children appear throughout the video to terrorize diamond lovers. One even scares Kanye right out of his Mercedes.

Before Kanye blazed into Prague, the video opened with scenes of these children working in deadly African diamond mines, and a graphic describing their plight. We learn that in the scramble for diamonds, warlords and gangsters are turning Sierra Leone into a slaughterhouse. This states the important business West and Williams want to address, but the video would have been that much more powerful if this context were provided later on. Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn" is the model for this kind of smiling subversion. She starts off promising a bouncy showtune and ends up issuing a death threat to white supremacists. Smile, smile, stab.

Still, William's visuals resonate with more than just the diamond conflicts in Sierra Leone and Angola. Emphasizing early on the simple fact that innocents are being killed for diamonds, the video could just as easily be about cell phones, Rocawear jackets or iPods. Or anything that one poor person is willing to kill another poor person to attain. Without the inky anamorphic images or the precision with which Williams dissolves between them (linking West with his African ghosts and European gargoyles as elegantly as the opening montage of Apocalypse Now linked civilizations)--that is, without the heartbreak, only the sense of rage and injustice--Diamonds from Sierra Leone would be merely the latest black-black-blackety-black grievance video, and not the masterpiece that it is.

There's a simple lesson here for minority filmmakers trying to figure out how to address titanic subjects like slavery, colonialism and Third World exploitation: Show us how these things destroy us, not just the ones at the bottom, dressed in rags, but also the ones dressed for the office, the resort, the gullwing Mercedes.

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