A former model who also appeared in music videos, Djimon Hounsou was seemingly plucked from obscurity by producer Debbie Allen and director Steven Spielberg to portray Joseph Cinque, the leader of a slave ship mutiny, in "Amistad" (1997). A tall, powerful, commanding presence, he delivered a critically-praised performance that immediately sparked talk of a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Born in a small village in the West African nation of Benin, Hounsou, the youngest of five, eventually went to live with an older brother in Lyons, France, ostensibly to pursue his education. Bored with school, he dropped out (something he now regrets) and moved to Paris where he lived on the streets for more than a year. Spotted by a fashion photographer, Hounsou was introduced to clothing designer Thierry Mugler and was hired as a model.
Once established in his new profession, he moved to the USA where David Fincher cast him in several music videos, including Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" and Madonna's "Express Yourself". Hounsou made the move to acting with a bit part as Sandra Bernhard's ex-boyfriend in "Without You, I'm Nothing" (1990). Dropping his surname, he was billed as 'Djimon' in small roles in "Unlawful Entry" (1992) and the blockbuster "Stargate" (1994). It may seem almost pre-destined that Spielberg would select the actor for "Amistad". In 1995, Hounsou filmed a more fictionalized version of the same events, "Ill Gotten Gains", again playing the leader of the mutiny on the Amistad. While that independent film received a limited release in 1997 (just prior to the premiere of "Amistad"), it was clearly a warm-up for the actor.
The next several years saw Hounsou taking on a variety of roles, including a recurring role as a political exile on the popular series "ER" in 1999 as well as appearing in the Oscar winning "Gladiator," in 2000. In 2002, he had a supporting role in the remake of "Four Feathers" starring Kate Hudson and Heath Ledger and in 2003, he was cast in the action features "Biker Boyz" and "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life." But that same year he was used to much greater effect in writer-director Jim Sheridan's gripping autobiographical film "In America," playing Mateo (the Man Who Screams), the tortured and virus afflicted artist who opens his heart to the neighboring family of Irish immigrants who live in his drug-plagued building in New York. Hounsou's alternately blistering and soulful performance earned him his first Academy Awards nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
The actor next turned up in a brief but compelling stint as the mysterious voodoo practioner/L.A. club owner Papa Midnight in the comic book-derived horror/action hybrid "Constantine" (2005). Hounsou then provided the romantic spark as the studly electrician who lives above Queen Latifah’s hair salon in “Beauty Shop” (2005), a spin-off of the popular “Barbershop” franchise, and appeared as an the intensely focused head of a private security system trying to recapture a pair of escapees from a cloning facility in Michael Bay's sci-fi thriller "The Island."