After a good number of years appearing in superhero vehicles and action-adventure blockbusters, Djimon Hounsou is going to make the kind of film that once made him an awards favorite. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with putting his name on a ton of tentpoles — they have certainly kept this deserved actor on our radar — Hounsou could use more leading man roles, in general.
Well, according to Variety, that opportunity has finally come for Hounsou, and it looks like it could be a milestone. He will star in the drama film Panzi, a biopic about 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege. Actress-turned-director Marie-Helene Roux — whose latest feature, Links of Life, has yet to be released — will write and direct Panzi, and the film is set to shoot next summer.
Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist and the founder of Panzi Hospital in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city of Bukavu. He has spent years working out of that institution, which has grown exponentially from a hospital comprised of tents to a sturdy, significant facility with hundreds of staff members in employment. Panzi Hospital was originally set up to provide prenatal services in a region with a desperate lack of them. However, that mandate soon transformed to include treating thousands of women who were victims of systemic rape by militias.
For years, the DRC has been rife with armed conflict as conglomerates chase economic incentives. Inflicting sexual violence on women and girls is routinely weaponized as terror and displacement tactics against civilian communities. In response, Mukwege has not only dedicated his career to providing essential medical care for the affected women; additionally, alongside activists Eve Ensler and Christine Schuler Deschryver, he was involved in setting up City of Joy (the story of which can be seen in an essential new Netflix documentary featuring Mukwege). This healing and leadership center focuses on empowering sexual violence victims, with activities including comprehensive sex education, literacy, agro-pastoral training, and self-defense, among others.
Mukwege is also vocal about the atrocities of the DRC conflicts, speaking out against them on the world stage. At times, though, this has been to his own detriment. Notably, after his speech at the United Nations condemned the volatile climate in the DRC in 2012, Mukwege was subject to an assassination attempt that led him to flee to Europe until 2013.
Since 2013, he has been living at Panzi Hospital under the protection of UN peacekeepers. Of Mukwege’s other accolades alongside the Nobel Peace Prize (which he shares with Iraqi Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, star of her own new film), he was awarded the UN Human Rights Prize in 2008 and was part of TIME magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people worldwide. Yet the grind doesn’t stop; Mukwege was in the middle of surgery when news of his Nobel win reached him.
Given Mukwege’s undeniably powerful and vital human rights work that is primed to continue for the foreseeable future, the importance of Panzi as a biographical drama cannot be overstated. His achievements are stellar, especially in the rocky climate of regressively patriarchal world politics today. They are distinctly multifaceted in nature as well, as Mukwege has advocated for rehabilitation options beyond hospital walls for the women affected.
That said, I’m doubtful that covering all that in Panzi is possible when, as Variety notes, Paris-based 1divided Films, which will produce the movie, has exclusive rights to the life stories of both Mukwege and his colleague and friend Guy-Bernard Cadière. Cadière is another doctor who works closely with Mukwege at Panzi Hospital, and both men co-authored a book (also titled Panzi) of their experiences there.
Translating real life into a feature film is never easy. Turning activism of all sorts into a two-hour package could run the risk of only touching on the so-called “highlights” of any one campaign. However, despite the fact that this could happen with Panzi, Hounsou and his penchant for nuance will definitely pack an extra punch with his involvement. After constantly playing a plethora of supporting characters in films such as Blood Diamond and In America and only sometimes getting recognized for it, Panzi marks one of the biggest roles in his career.
It’s so much fun watching Hounsou pop up randomly in movies like Constantine or Furious 7 or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Yet, it’s also a real shame that he so rarely actually takes center stage. And more often than not, when he does, the projects in question don’t live up to his abilities.
Elephant White only barely works because Hounsou is in it; his co-star Kevin Bacon is just doing an unbelievable accent alongside him. Special Forces, which also features Diane Kruger, is a better action vehicle for him that provides a little more gravitas for its actors to work with. Air nicely pairs Hounsou off with Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead for a low-budget sci-fi offering with a promising concept. Still, the film suffers from pacing issues that undermine the depth and repartee that either actor brings to their characters.
These are a selection of Hounsou’s most recent leading roles and they all have specific genre audiences to cater to. Meanwhile, the rest of the world would’ve seen him in Guardians of the Galaxy or The Legend of Tarzan. Soon, Captain Marvel, Shazam!, and Charlie’s Angels can be added to that list. Nevertheless, despite being a dramatic outing with less flash and pizzazz, Panzi is the most exciting thing on Hounsou’s slate. At long last, he seems to be getting his due.