Djimon Honusou’s story of Success, from the Streets of France to the American Big Screen
By Samantha Mills.
Life did not start out kind to Djimon Honusou. The youngest of five much older siblings in Benin, Djimon often felt left behind and unsupported by his grown up and busy family members. When he was thirteen, his parents sent him to live with his oldest brother Edmond in France.
After only a brief stay in his brother’s household, Djimon felt as though he had had enough, he dropped out of school and ran away from home in hopes of somehow becoming an entertainer.
For several years Djimon spent his days as a homeless vagrant, aimlessly wandering the streets in Pompidou, a town half an hour outside of Paris. He slept under bridges and begged in the streets, even washing himself in the public fountain in Pompidou Square.
As Djimon struggled to find work, his thoughts were continually drawn to Paris and his long-standing dream to entertain.
Back in Benin, Djimon had attended the local theatre every Wednesday in order to watch American Westerns, quickly falling in love with the cinematic genre and wishing to be an inspirational change to Africa and improve the lives of the people there.
However, life seemed to be constantly working against him, opportunities for money were few and far between and most of his daily efforts went into surviving.
His luck changed when Djimon turned 21. One day, a photographer saw him sleeping on a park bench and noted his unique face and startling features. He asked Djimon if he could take a few pictures of him but suspicious of the stranger, Djimon refused.
Persistent, the same photographer returned again the next day to ask if Djimon would be interested in coming with him to a photo shoot. Djimon noted that he was larger than the man and finally relented, presuming that should the situation go array, he could always defend himself and besides, what else did he have to lose?
The pictures of Djimon taken by the photographer were then sent to a modelling agency in Paris. Intrigued, the company directed him to the Parisian perfume manufacture and fashion designer Thierry Mugler, who used young Djimon as the opening model of his runway performance.
After Djimon’s first show, Thierry approached him and asked what he was doing with his life and where he lived, Djimon could give no satisfying reply to either question. In response, Thierry took Djimon on as a regular model and suddenly struck by a new career, Djimon began to tour the world in 1987 at the age of 22.
After touring the world as a model, Djimon went to America in 1990 with high hopes of still contributing to the entertainment industry in a significant way. However, Djimon recognized the fact that his language barrier would pose a problem and so upon arriving in California with Thierry and his set of new friends, Djimon was determined to learn English.
He managed to do so by watching television channels such as A&E and the Discovery Channel. Luckily, his first break through into the sphere of entertainment didn’t involve much speaking, as he served to make minor appearances in music videos including “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul, “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” by Janet Jackson, and Madonna’s “Express Yourself” between the years of 1989 to 1992.
Despite lacking any formal means of training and still retaining a thick accent, Djimon’s first debut in cinema came in 1990 as the Ex-Boyfriend in Without You I’m Nothing and in the television shows Beverly Hills, 90210 and ER, along with a guest starring role in Alias. Djimon’s first large role appeared in Stargate in 1994.
Since then, Djimon has appeared in movies including Gladiator (2000), the Island (2005), Blood Diamond (2006), Eragon (2006), The Tempest (2010), How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Seventh Son (2014), Furious 7 (2015) and The Legend of Tarzan (2016), to name a few.
He has held an influence in television shows including the main role he received in the Black Panther, a mini-series that aired in 2010 and the role of CJ Mitchum in Wayward Pines, which aired in 2016.
Djimon continues his work as an actor, with four upcoming films he has had a role in being scheduled for release in the next three years, including King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), Same Kind of Different as Me (2017), Blazing Samurai (2018), and How to Train Your Dragon 3 (2019).
For his efforts, Djimon has been received as a critically acclaimed actor and in 2006; he won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor due to his performance in Blood Diamond.
He has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Academy Award for his role in the Steven Spielberg film Amistad in 1997 and was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for In America in 2004, making him the fourth African male to be nominated for an Oscar.
Other nominations Djimon received included the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Screen Actors Guild Award and an Academy Award, all for his role in Blood Diamond.
Now that he has firmly established himself in his medium of choice, Djimon’s work has begun to branch outside of the scope of film, as the man has become a strong advocate for human rights, speaking out against poverty, social injustice and climate change.
Djimon has served as a global ambassador for the aid and development group of Oxfam and in 2009 spoke with passion and conviction at the 2009 UN summit on Climate Change.
Speaking to Oxfam on his philanthropic work in Africa, Djimon explained, “I came across this amazing quote that says we should all be ashamed to die unless we’ve made a major contribution to society. I am the son of the continent and it’s my obligation to care for my own people.”
From a starry eyed boy with a dream in Benin, to a homeless vagrant sleeping on park benches in France to a critically acclaimed film star and successful model with a voice in world summits, Djimon Hounsou has had quite the journey and along the way still managed to remain a man of dignity and humility with a passion for serving others and bringing the story of the people of Africa to the big screen, in hopes of inspiring others around the world.