By Samantha Ofole-Prince
Photo Courtesy Warner Bros & Vero Image
For Djimon Hounsou, playing an African chief in “The Legend of Tarzan” presented a great opportunity to play a very noble character.
As Chief Mbonga, he’s the leader of the Mbolonga tribe, guardians of the mineral-rich Opar region, and he brings authority, dignity and conviction to the role in this new spin on the popular Tarzan tale.
“It’s a great opportunity to play a dignified character, but if the message didn’t resonate nor valued Africans, I wouldn’t have done it,” says the two-time Academy Award nominee who I caught up with at The Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills.
A film that lightly touches on imperialism and African economics, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) has now left the jungles of Africa for a gentrified life in the U.K., with wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), at his side, but is invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament. It’s all part of an ominous plan by King Leopold’s deceitful envoy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who intends to capture Tarzan and deliver him to his old enemy, Chief Mbonga, in exchange for a fortune in diamonds.
“Mbonga is emotionally scarred by something that happened in the past with Tarzan. After so many years, his anger has grown, and it’s gotten the best of him," shares Hounsou. "He makes a deal with Leon Rom to lure Tarzan back to Africa, but he is blinded by revenge and doesn’t realize he’s making a deal with the devil,” continues the actor who received his first Oscar nomination for his performance in Jim Sheridan’s ‘In America.’ “The social impact is not loud and it’s not in your face in this story,” he continues, “but it has so many themes running through it. The family theme, economic and political issues, military occupation and the enslavement of the continent.”
Although the actual story is fictional, Hounsou, a Benin native, who earned his second Oscar nod for his role in Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” feels that some of the themes are still relevant.
“Our makeup tends to cater and be subservient to humanity rather than take from humanity and we expose ourselves to be taken advantage of rather than serving oneself.”
A celebrity ambassador for Oxfam and Orbis Africa, Hounsou has starred in several films that include Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Best Picture “Gladiator,” “Furious 7”, “Guardians of the Galaxy," and can also be seen in the television series “Wayward Pines." He made his breakthrough performance as Cinque, the African who leads an uprising to regain his freedom in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” and doesn’t shy away from making films, which focus on the continent.
“I have always loved the beauty of Africa, but unfortunately, it is a continent that was voiceless and still is in many respects.”
It’s something the actor is striving to change. With the launch of his independent production company Fanaticus Entertainment, he is making projects relevant to the global African diaspora. On the slate is the life story of former dictator Joseph Mobutu and the documentary “In Search of Voodoo: Roots to Heaven,” which focuses on the well-known ancient West African religion.
“I have come to understand the importance of having your voice heard and we haven’t been anywhere near telling who we are and what we are striving for. Benin is my village where I was born and my country is the continent of Africa. I do it for the continent, which is the big picture.”
Directed by David Yates, “The Legend of Tarzan” also stars Samuel L. Jackson and Jim Broadbent and releases in theaters Friday July 1, 2016.
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