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Africa's close-up

October 15, 2006

AFRICA IS THE LATEST CAUSE CELEBRE for celebrities, but Angelina Jolie and Madonna would have to adopt an awful lot of African babies to raise the whole continent out of poverty. In fact, all the chatter from movie stars, musicians and models has scarcely made a dent in Africa's problems or done much to raise awareness of them. But as the movement spreads through Hollywood, that could change.

In December, Warner Bros. will release "Blood Diamond," a big-budget thriller set during Sierra Leone's brutal civil war in the late 1990s. The film has created concern among diamond retailers that fear its portrayal of the trade in "conflict diamonds" will spark a consumer backlash. Leonardo DiCaprio, the film's star and one of many to adopt Africa as a pet cause in recent years, says he took the role after talking to human rights experts about the devastating effects of the illicit diamond trade.

The film joins a spate of movies about or set in Africa that have appeared in the last two years -- including one currently in theaters, "The Last King of Scotland," which examines the psychopathic regime of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Others include "The Constant Gardener," "Hotel Rwanda," "In My Country," "Sometimes in April" and "Yesterday."

Development experts have long complained that what was once called the Dark Continent is now the Invisible Continent. U.S. news organizations maintain few bureaus in Africa, and TV viewers are more likely to see African rhinos on the Discovery Channel than African people on the nightly news. Yet they are appearing on movie screens. "The Constant Gardener" portrayed the kind of terrifying attack on a village by militias that is still tearing apart the Darfur region of Sudan, while "Hotel Rwanda" may have made more Americans aware of the Rwandan genocide than the actual events did 10 years earlier.

One disappointing trend in these movies is the degree to which the genre remains tied to the "Out of Africa" tradition. These are mainly tales of Africa seen through the eyes of white Westerners -- "Hotel Rwanda" is a notable exception -- who with any luck can fly away from the place in the final, bittersweet scene. Audiences may be ready for more tales of Africa told from the perspective of Africans. Still, even a picture of the continent skewed for maximum entertainment value beats no picture at all.

Africa remains off the political radar in the U.S. Not many candidates running for Congress will be asked about their policies on Sudan or Somalia. There are moral, economic, environmental, strategic and national security reasons that that should change. Right now, Hollywood seems to be doing a better job of pointing them out than Washington.

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