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Hey It's That Guy

Djimon Hounsou’s Been Stuck In Big-Budget Purgatory For Too Long

Djimon Hounsou in Shazam
Screenshot: Warner Brothers

Welcome to Hey It's That Guy, a series celebrating a selection of character actors and spotlighting, in detail, the under-appreciated, singular traits that make them so indelible. 

This column is quickly becoming a catalog of various cinematic associations from my youth: actors and moments from hundreds of hours spent surfing channels and watching all manner of gold and dreck that younger generations increasingly won’t know or care about. I’ve seen faithful commenters admonish and relate to my singular, flawed, yet personal cataloging. Which is to say, the way that we metabolize films and TV presents its own kind of history, one that isn’t necessarily divorced from the main narrative of a release date, a cast list, a running time, and all the details of a production which, combined together, form the “history” of a movie’s making. Instead, these little histories run parallel to this history and are the real, true way that media lives on: in memories of watching something, with someone or in isolation, repeatedly or once, with a stand-out scene, or face, pervading through the years. 

I can say, for my part, such resonance or showstopping awe from a particular performance is becoming more and more difficult to notice, less because there’s an endless deluge of stuff coming out (though there is that), but because there is rarely a differentiation between how different types of media get released. As Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson wrote recently, "The abundance of options and possibilities tend to strip the context and intentionality away from the viewing experience; you didn’t have to talk to your friends about what movie you wanted to see, buy a ticket, and create an experience out of it. Now it all just flows toward you, content in an endless stream." This ambivalent but algorithmically insistent stream privileges sameness and uniformity over the unique and original. I see this in recent performances as well, with actors who could memorably step into the "character actor" slot choosing not to, or being prevented from doing so. 

Character actors capitalize on the long-term association. They achieve their glory over time, after dozens and dozens of projects, because audiences remember them. It’s not just the size of the performance, or the volume, or even necessarily the abrupt, shocking nature of a cameo. Rather, we have to call upon that annoyingly vague term, “presence,” to help explain why we register someone, beyond the simple fact that an actor’s importance is already solidified by their being on screen at all. The death of the movie star has been a topic of conversation for years now and a lot of it has to do with this slippery idea—presence—or a distressing lack thereof. While this debate interests (and depresses) me, I think people are looking in the wrong place for it. Presence is a character actor’s stock and trade. It’s what engenders a double-take, the desire to look that person up after you get out of the theater, that ineffable but palpable feeling of recognition and previously unknown delight. “Oh, them! I really like them actually.” 

I really like Djimon Hounsou. I always have, and being the bored, eternally movie-ravenous child I was, I tried watching as many of his movies as I could. Often, I’d end up watching the same ones whenever they came on. The Island. Constantine. Gladiator. Push. Snippets of Deep Rising and Blood Diamond. Not all of these are “good” movies, but they are movies I have a deep fondness for, wholly or in part because of Hounsou. 

Hounsou’s career, at least in an American context, really took off with Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, from 1997, where he played slave rebel Sengbe Pieh (though some may remember him in Stargate from 1994). I remember watching the film much later, having not heard it spoken about in the parlance of Spielberg’s bigger accomplishments. It is, by my estimation, not a bad movie, directed with clear attachment and conviction, full of decent performances, though trafficking in the purest form of white saviordom. Hounsou’s performance in Amistad telegraphs his hallmark qualities, a confident physicality and understated dignity, both of which would be distorted or taken advantage of in future roles where Hounsou was called upon to play a glorified magical negro. His staid performance in 2000’s blockbuster Gladiator more firmly introduced Hounsou to the world, ushering in a spate of dramatic supporting roles, like The Four Feathers and In America, that showcased his considerable range at the expense of making little money at the box office. 

Thus began the era of my cinematic encounters with Hounsou, the action and genre films of the mid-aughts, where he was called upon to play a variation of the heroic or villainous expert, the sage and experienced keeper of secrets, the exotic coach, the mercenary with a heart of gold. With the exception of Blood Diamond, a serious, self-important film in which Hounsou dwarfs co-star Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in every meaningful way despite the latter’s showy South African accent and sweaty yelling, and Beauty Shop, a truly random mid-budget comedy starring Queen Latifah where Hounsou gets the rare chance to play a charming romantic interest, Hounsou found steady, if not exactly challenging, work in this mode. Which is to say, most of the movies from this era, which have trickled into the present (The King’s Man), are bad. 

So it would be hyperbole to say that Hounsou’s presence in, say, 2008’s Never Back Down, makes the movie better. In that film, he plays a Mr. Miyagi-like figure to a young white boy looking to become an MMA fighter. The role is full of sports cliches and philosophical platitudes, which Hounsou does his best to deliver with some wit and gravitas. But Hounsou is a peculiar actor in that the badness of the film he’s in never seems to rub off on his performance. His is a talent that makes itself apparent in the desperate, almost claustrophobic feeling one gets as soon as he’s off screen. You miss his ease, his observant eyes, and mirthful smile. To be clear, this is an experience specific to viewing Hounsou in a bad movie. Because when he gets the rare chance to play with good actors in possession of a decent script, he shines like the best of them. 

Unfortunately, it’s been a while since Hounsou’s been given this chance. I don’t like pointing to Blood Diamond in this context; it’s an overrated, manipulative film. But Hounsou is outstanding in it. In particular, during an early scene when his character is detained after finding an enormous pink diamond, Hounsou radiates an anxious-then irritated-then-suddenly-explosive energy. A captured warlord accuses him of stealing the diamond, goading him further and further until Hounsou’s character strips, shouting that he isn’t hiding anything while dozens of other prisoners, including DiCaprio’s character, watch. Narratively, this scene is meat-and-potatoes: DiCaprio needs to hear about this rare diamond from Hounsou so that the two might further the plot, escaping prison and going on a journey together. Similarly, in an awards context, Hounsou does the shouty thing that the Academy tends to fawn over. But there are details here, the shakiness of Hounsou’s voice, his wide-eyed desperation and accompanying quicksilver movements, the effusive anger he spits out. As magnetic as he can be in a silent mode, Hounsou is also a fantastic yeller. 

Still, these days, Hounsou is more likely to appear in a big-budget franchise, like Fast & Furious or Aquaman or Captain Marvel or Black Adam, than a critically acclaimed drama. Whether these are surefire practical decisions, wherein he trades his talent for a guaranteed box office success, or the result of limitations of the imaginations of directors and producers, it’s a shame. Hounsou has always been better than these roles and deserving of a wider canvas. This month, he’ll star in the sequel to 2019’s Shazam!, playing one of the more blatant magical negroes I’ve seen in a while. It would be hubris to speak for Hounsou, who seems content to simply still be working (in which case, same), though no arrogant leap to say his talents are being wasted, guzzled up and made disposable by machines like Marvel or DC. Actors like Hounsou, often typecast or called upon to lend weight and depth to barely acceptable stereotypes, can be buried beneath mounds of bad work. But their highest highs tend to stick in an audience’s mind more than their lowest low. All it takes is one good role. Hounsou continues to prove, despite the mediocre work he’s often given, that he deserves that chance. 

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