Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The unlikely career of Djimon Hounsou

I finally finished watching The Tempest this weekend.

I've had the damn thing out from Netflix since March 27th, the longest I can remember having a movie in ages. That's the problem with renting movies you are trying to save for the perfect viewing occasion: that viewing occasion rarely arises. And it took about two weeks into our possession of it for me to definitively determine that my wife was going to pass on it.

But my own attempts to watch it were many. Every time I started to watch it, it was too damn late at night. I watched the first ten minutes at least two to three weeks ago, and then I think I made a second attempt during which I got about just as far. I finally made a permanent dent in its running time on Friday afternoon at the gym, and it was my intention to finish it that night. But Friday's late-night viewing window got me only 30 minutes further, and Saturday's only 15 minutes further than that. I finally took down the last 35 minutes last night, and it will be getting back to Netflix just a few days shy of a month since I first received it.

The main casualty of this protracted viewing schedule was not that I lost the thread of the narrative. I pretty much got what was going on, even though this was one of Shakespeare's plays that was not familiar to me. It was that I kind of stopped translating the language, and allowed myself to space out for a minute or two without worrying what I'd missed. That's blasphemy for any serious Shakespeare devotee, and I consider myself to be such. But I got the thrust of what was going on. And besides, with any Julie Taymor film, the most interesting part is the visuals. This film did not disappoint in that respect. (I just confirmed what I'd taken the plot to be by reading the synopsis on wikipedia. Turns out, only a few little details needed to be ironed out for me.)

Perhaps because I made so many attempts to watch The Tempest, a number of different things occurred to me to write about. But the one that was the most interesting was the way the movie made me think about the career of Djimon Hounsou, who plays the "monster" Caliban, the deformed son of a witch who lived on the play's island setting before Prospero (here Prospera, so Helen Mirren could play the role) and his/her daughter got there.

And what an unlikely career this actor has had.

Simply put, there is no other actor out there who is "like" Djimon Hounsou. There's not really anyone working in Hollywood who you could say was "a poor man's Djimon Hounsou." And perhaps that's because his path to get here seems so unlikely, born in the West African country of Benin and emigrating to Paris with his brother when he was 13.

There are few actors who originated in Africa who have even made a name for themselves. If I were pressed to think about who I'd consider most similar in either physical appearance or cultural background, names like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (of Lost fame) and Chiwetel Ejiofor would come to mind. But both of those actors were actually born in England, with at least one parent of Nigerian origin.

Hounsou has more than made a name for himself. He's gotten nominated for two Oscars. And even though The Tempest may not be his crowning achievement, in a way it represents another threshold for him to have crossed. Hounsou speaks English with a very heavy accent, so it would be natural to expect his tongue to get twisted and tripped up by the Shakespearean dialogue. I'm glad to say that was not the case, and he still hit all his character's necessary emotional beats, even bringing subtlety to a role written broadly.

But Hounsou's career is not only unlikely because he hails from a West African country so small that I must say I was only somewhat aware that it even existed. It's because he didn't start as an actor, but rather a fashion model. How many fashion models turned actors do you know who have even one Oscar nomination? (Okay, there are probably more than I think there are. Just as one example, I recently learned that winner and three-time nominee Anjelica Huston started out as a model.)

But even once he proved that he was more than just a pretty face, more than just that beautiful body from the Janet Jackson video for "Love Will Never Do (Without You)," Hounsou had to confront the reality that there would be relatively few roles where he would be a natural fit. Because of his heavy accent (his native language is French) and because of his distinctly African appearance, he wouldn't be a logical candidate for most roles written for an African-American. (Which Hounsou literally is, as of 2007 -- his citizenship is officially Beninese-American.)

So Hounsou's best bet was roles where he played either an African living in Africa, or a displaced African living elsewhere. In fact, his Oscar nominations were for one of each -- Blood Diamond for the former, In America for the latter. By cornering the market on these roles -- which also included Amistad, Gladiator and The Four Feathers -- Hounsou not only forged a career working regularly, but I'd argue he has sort of become a household name. Fortunately, his name is easier to pronounce than Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.

Another big step in Hounsou's unlikely career came in 2009, when he was cast as a character with apparently no African origins or affiliations, named Henry Carver, in the "normal people with special powers" movie Push. And it was a step forward despite the fact that the movie was terrible, and Hounsou himself was a part of the problem. Playing an outright villain for possibly the fist time ever, Hounsou seemed to stumble over his dialogue, failing to enunciate it in a way necessary for his role to seem chilling. And although I do cite that as one of the film's weaknesses, it's only one of many reasons the movie doesn't work. But I think it's more useful to look at what the movie represents than what it was. It represents the desire to work with Djimon Hounsou even when he may be quite wrong for the role in question.

His casting in -- and effective performance in -- The Tempest seems to permanently put to rest the idea that there might be things Hounsou can't do, either because his accent is too strong or because as a former fashion model, he's not a "real" actor. As much as Taymor prizes the visual scheme in her two adaptations of Shakespeare's plays (she also directed the 1999 adaptation of Titus Andronicus, called Titus), she's not just giving these roles away to any old person. The casts of her two films have included the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper and Alfred Molina. If Hounsou couldn't have done the role, she wouldn't have given it to him.

The future for Hounsou seems like a combination of what we've come to expect from him, and what we haven't -- the latter making his career seem more unlikely still. IMDB lists Hounsou's next project as the 2013 film Zulu, which I took to be a remake of the 1964 movie starring Michael Caine. Instead, he plays a police officer working in a Cape Town homicide department. But what seems really surprising is that wikipedia shows him affiliated with a now-filming version of John Milton's Paradise Lost, though IMDB does not list this project. Depending on the treatment of this particular adaptation, it could again call on Hounsou's recently discovered fitness for 17th century language.

We have so few actors working today who can truly be considered one of a kind. When one pulls it off and then some, it's worth celebrating.

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