Sunday, June 03, 2012

Hounsou’s road to success: modeling, music videos and movies

He hasn’t appeared in a film since 2011’s Special Forces and I never saw it, so the last time I saw Djimon Hounsou in a movie was in 2010’s The Tempest.  It’s been awhile and that’s a shame.  The first time I saw him was in a Janet Jackson music video and even in that, he made an impression.  He radiates presence onscreen and I think he’s a vastly underrated actor.  He was discovered while walking the streets of Paris and worked as a model before working in film.  The Benin-born man is one of the most popular actors to come out of Africa and his path to success wasn’t an easy one.  He grew up away from his parents and often scavenged through garbage for food and slept on the streets.  

 His big break-out moment came with Steven Spielberg’s Amistad.  Hounsou played an African slave who initiates a rebellion aboard a slave ship. In the film, Hounsou provides a strong visual focus, which is what I consider to be his strength as an actor. From the opening scene where we first glimpse Hounsou feverishly working to remove a nail in a wooden floor, he brings the Africans’ pride, fear and fury to life.   

Hounsou delivered another commanding performance in the touching film In America where he played a reclusive Nigerian artist dying of Aids. Playing a man full of anguish and pain, closed off from others and despondent for his art and despairing for his future, the role revealed his true, deep talent. The way that his character evolves from an angry and bitter recluse referred to as “the man who screams” because his anguish can be heard through the stairwell of his apartment building, to a man who is kind, gentle and loving to the Irish immigrant family who lives in the same building is an emotional shift that Hounsou carried off with strength and skill.

One of my favourite performances by the actor is that of Juba in Gladiator.  I liked the film despite the fact that Ridley Scott’s revisionist take of gladiatorial battles in the Roman Colosseum was a glossy, grandiose and bloody affair.  It was a feast for the eyes with a rich cast full of veterans – Derek Jacobi, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed – as well as their younger counterparts, among them Hounsou.  His was a supporting role, and he was extremely effective as a friend and ally to Maximus; ferocious in battle and quiet and kind outside the ring.  The role didn’t demand much from him, but Hounsou still managed to infuse the character of a man who has lost his family, is sold into slavery and must fight for his life and his freedom into a character with heart worth rooting for.

The film in which I think that Hounsou shone brightest and showcased his ability as a leading man was in Blood Diamond.  The film is an effective thriller that takes place in 1999 during a civil war in Sierra Leone where rebels captured citizens and sent them to work harvesting diamonds.  Hounsou plays Solomon Vandy, a loving husband and father who is captured by the rebels, finds a pink diamond and uses it to deal for the safety of his wife and children. The way he portrays Vandy’s single-minded focus and passion as a man risking his life to save his family drives the movie forward.The film’s urgent moments are because of Vandy and that effect is created because Hounsou holds nothing back; he is volcanic in the role.  The scene where he pleads with his son to remember his innocence while the young boy, hardened by his time and training with the rebels, stands before him with a machine gun in his hand, is gripping, beautifully acted and heartbreakingly honest.  The film benefited from his presence and I look forward to seeing other films benefit from the presence of this underrated actor.

What are your favourite Djimon Hounsou films? Let us know in the comments section.


10 comments:

  1. thanks for this! my favorite is Blood Diamond and In America.

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    1. I'm glad that you approve of my latest subject for my underrated actors feature. 'Blood Diamond' and 'In America' are definitely two of Hounsou's best films.

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  2. I liked him in Gladiator and Blood Diamond. It's too bad he doesn't appear in better movies these days :(

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    1. Those two films are stand-outs for me too. It is a shame indeed - I feel like I haven't seen him in a film, good or bad, in ages.

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  3. I agree Hounsou has good screen presence, but "The Benin-born man is the most prominent actor to come out of Africa"? I think Omar Sharif would first come to a lot more movie peoples' minds than Hounsou. And of course, among all African actors and actresses Charlize Theron is the only one to win an Oscar.

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    1. Yes, Omar Sharif is another great African actor. Shamefully, he did not immediately come to mind while I was writing this post (obviously.) And Theron is indeed the most widely known South African actor indeed.

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  4. My favorite is definitely In America because I love the sensitivity he brings to that character and how he was able to connect with that film.

    He was also the only thing in Never Back Down that was worth watching. Horrible movie but he kept it from being a disaster.

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    1. He did a remarkable job in 'In America;' such a powerful performance.

      I never saw 'Never Back Down,' and I'm not sure I will if it's horrible, but possibly on a rainy Sunday afternoon someday...

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  5. So awesome! Wish he appeared in more. Loved him in Gladiator, In America, he even elevated The Island considerably.

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    1. I'd like to see him in more films too. Ah yes, 'The Island.' He did a fine job for the part he played. You know, it wasn't the best movie, but I still found it entertaining enough.

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