Djimon Hounsou (1964- ) is a Hollywood actor and model. He played Cinque in “Amistad” (1997) and later appeared in “Gladiator” (2000), “In America” (2003) and “Blood Diamonds” (2006). For the last two he was nominated for Oscars for Best Supporting Actor. He also models underwear for Calvin Klein. In 2009 he had a son by girlfriend Kimora Lee Simmons.
He was born in Benin, the country just west of Nigeria, the son of a well-to-do cook. He grew up in a place without television, so when they showed films it was standing room only. It was then he knew he wanted to be an entertainer.
His father had other ideas and sent him to France to study to become a doctor. Hounsou lived with his brother in Lyons. His heart was not in his studies and he dropped out. Then his brother kicked him out, so Hounsou made his way to Paris.
There he lived on the streets for over a year – he had no working papers. Then one day a photographer noticed him. Hounsou never thought of himself as good-looking, but to white people he was a tall, dark, exotic-looking African man. Hounsou is 1.91 metres tall (6 foot 3).
So in 1987 he became a fashion model in Paris!
Three years later he left to go to Hollywood to become an actor. He had charm, good looks and talent, but in Hollywood he had two strikes against him: he knew little English and he was black.
Hounsou said that Hollywood film-makers:
think of you as a black artist, not an artist, and that’s crippling. You have to fight and fight for them to think of a role as being black because they’ve been thinking white, white, white.
Also being black in America was different than in Africa or France:
It never occurred to me that there was a way to behave “black” in order to be black…. It was difficult for me. Growing up in France, I was just a human being. I came here and they tell you, “Hey, he behaves like a white boy.” I didn’t know there was a way to be black. So that was shocking.
He learned English by listening to narrators of documentaries on cable television. In the meantime he got parts that required little English, like a doorman on “Beverly Hills, 90210″ or a model in Janet Jackson’s music video “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” (1990) – a part he got by way of fashion photographer Herb Ritts.
Then he landed a big part that required only three words of English: Cinque, who leads the slave mutiny in “Amistad” (1997). The catch was, Hounsou had just ten days to learn enough Mende for the part! Which for him, having grown up speaking Gen and French, was just as hard as learning English!
It got him noticed and now he gets better parts, though almost always as a supporting character – a common fate of black actors in Hollywood. And his English is now so good that he is a narrator too!