One on One with Don Cheadle: ‘We’re Getting Played’

by | May 4, 2005 | celebrities, Exclusive Interviews | 2 comments

Whatever we do, we should know that one day we will all face that man called ‘history’ and that day we should have a word to tell him. “–Paul Rusesabagina

Imagine you lived in Kigali, Rwanda in April 1994 and you managed to survive the genocidal rampage that brutally ended the lives of 800,000 men, women and children.

For those who need a more recent graphic reference—that is four times the number who perished in the 2004 tsunami in South Asia.

Profoundly traumatized by the atrocities you’ve witnessed, and stunned by the rest of the world’s indifference to the tragedy, you spend the next decade trying to get people around the globe to understand what happened in your country, with the hope that it would never happen anywhere on Earth ever again.

By some amazing stroke of fortune, a Western filmmaker is so moved by your story he writes a screenplay about it, stubbornly ignores the Hollywood studio executives who insist the project isn’t film-worthy, and then manages to convince American A-list actor Don Cheadle to star in the independently produced film for very little money.

The movie goes on to earn critical acclaim, reaping three NAACP Image Award nominations, two Golden Globe nods and three Oscar nominations. Now, imagine your disbelief when you learn that after all the blood, sweat and tears shed by so many to bring the film to life, there are hundreds of millions of people who did not bother to go to the theater to see it.

Since its release on December 22, 2004 Hotel Rwanda has earned an estimated $25 million at the box office—which means roughly 3 million American theatergoers chose to see it. If you are one of the 290 million who did not bother, make a mental note to self: Rent Hotel Rwanda today.

Arguably the most important film of 2004, Hotel Rwanda stars Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life former manager of the four-star Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali, who risked his life to save 1,268 of his countrymen from certain death. It is based on the true story of a black man’s love for his family, his refusal to become inhuman in the midst of unimaginable inhumanity, and his unshakable courage in the face of death.

Though most of us know that Cheadle earned an Academy Award nomination for his stunning work in the film, what many do not know is that he turned down several blockbuster scripts (along with their blockbuster salaries) to ensure Rusesabagina’s story was brought to light.

“Out of the twenty or thirty scripts I read in 2003 there were two that I really wanted to do,” says Cheadle. “Neither of them had financing; neither of them had a home. I told the directors I would do anything to get them made, from being in them, to being behind the scenes, to helping to hustle money.”

Hotel Rwanda was one of the films Cheadle chose to help bring to the big screen; the other was Crash, an explosively candid independent film written and directed by Million Dollar Baby screenwriter, Paul Haggis.

In theaters May 6, and destined to be one of the most talked about films of 2005, Crash features a star-studded cast that includes Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Ludacris, Thandie Newton and Larenz Tate.

Set in post-9/11 Los Angeles, Crash is a compelling urban drama that offers a raw, unapologetic glimpse into the lives of Los Angelenos of various ethnic persuasions whose lives uncontrollably intersect and collide. At times funny, heartbreaking, powerful, and always unpredictable, Crash ventures bravely and bluntly into rarely explored racial and cultural territory exposing both our tendency towards ethnic separatism, as well as the hopeful truth of our shared humanity.

Invited by Paul Haggis to be a part of  Crash early in the film’s preproduction, Cheadle took on the role of co-producer to help attract quality actors and potential funders to the project.

“I was asked by Paul to come on board and help produce—given my relationship with actors and money people in the business,” Cheadle explains. “When you have a first-time director, even though you have great material in front of you, you don’t know how they’re going to pull it off. It’s a leap of faith for a lot of actors when you have a first-time director and no distributor. I talked to a lot of the cast members…to convey to everyone that I knew Paul could do it.”

According to Cheadle, it didn’t take much convincing once the actors read the script. “This really was a labor of love. Nobody came for the dough; there wasn’t any,” he says. “Everybody really believed in the story and wanted to see it come off.”

Though the film’s core theme revolves around ethnic and cultural differences, Cheadle says the movie is not really about racism. “It’s a movie about people making a choice when their back is up against the wall and the power is slipping through their fingers,” he explains. “Once you feel your back is up against it, you go to the easiest thing—the knee jerk response—‘oh you look like that and I can talk about what I believe about you.’ I love that [Haggis] takes the stereotypes and turns them,” says Cheadle, praising the artistry of the film’s writer/director. “He sets it up so you’re thinking, ‘yeah, that’s the bigot,’ and the stereotype is the easiest thing to go to…and then you realize this bigot is really a person who’s in pain.”

Crash skillfully exposes some of society’s more blatant and overt racism through its most unlikable characters, one of whom is a racist LAPD cop with a chip on his shoulder. But even the film’s so-called good cop, Graham (Cheadle’s character) wears his own subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) preconceptions about other ethnicities on his sleeve.

Ethnic slurs and sweeping generalizations aside, Cheadle believes there is a critical lesson in both Hotel Rwanda and Crash that humanity had better not ignore. “There is a technique at work at the core of this called ‘divide and conquer’ that has been working successfully for far too long,” he warns. “The amount of time humans have been on Earth in relation to the amount of time the Earth has been in existence is minute,” says Cheadle. “Humanity is young and you can pull the wool over the eyes of the young. So you pit people against one another and make them fight over crumbs, and [violence] is the result. When are we going to realize we’re getting played against each other by those in power?”

As with his commitment to the making of Hotel Rwanda, Cheadle’s willingness to sacrifice his salary, and his hard work behind the scenes to get Crash to the big screen, are indicative of his beliefs about who is ultimately responsible for making positive change in a society on the verge of upheaval, violence or collapse.

“[Paul Rusesabegina] always thought that one day history would look back at the events of those hundred days in Rwanda,” says Cheadle. “And Paul wanted to be standing on the right side of it.” Cheadle learned from his experience filming Hotel Rwanda that it is better to try to be a part of the solution now, than to look back later with regret for not having acted. “There is no greater social injustice anywhere in the world than in Africa,” he asserts. “It was a perfect place for [Hotel director Terry George] to point to, and it was important to him to rub the West’s nose in their own hypocrisy, and I think he did that.”

Cheadle doesn’t let himself off the hook in that regard, however. “To that degree,” he adds, “…we are all Westerners and we’re all culpable.”

Cheadle hopes more Americans, especially black Americans whose ancestry is so closely tied to Africa, will educate themselves about what is happening on the African continent, especially in Darfur, southern Sudan where hundreds of thousands have died in what the U.S. State Department officially referred to in 2004 as genocide. “I urge you to make noise,” Cheadle implores. “As long as this issue remains out of the public haunt, it will thrive unchecked. Save Darfur.”

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  1. De Aavo

    Kathleen, I am a movie enthusiast. Not just with knowledge about writers, stars, directors, producers, and companies. I am intrigued with the entire industry, so of course, I saw these two films because of their merited, artistic qualities.

    Hotel Rwanda, however, is filed in my mind where hope and hopelessness struggle, while I ponder and toil towards purpose, measuring my contributions in this race, dream or no dream.

    Writing this piece, for a brief moment, I considered watching Hotel Rwanda one more time. To reignite some of the many, many, many profound emotions I felt when I first watched the film. Deciding against watching it, I am sketching from memory: first of all, Hotel Rwanda is not the kind of film I could easily watch more than once, at least not yet. In fact, I remember how impotent I felt while watching the film. My more compelling emotions were anger, shame, and disgust.

    I remember feeling conscious since my late teens, of the underline, historical manipulations causing such tragedies: the manipulation of weak, wanting minds, influenced by the few making themselves the superior power by enforcing that perpetual, poisoning, superior illusion of God by color and might, against the act of the many, willingly surrendering power to that perpetually, crippling, inferior illusion of God’s servant by color and poverty.

    There I was again, historically represented as both victim and villain: good, ignorant and helpless; and evil, ignorant and helpless.

    During that film, I personally struggled to find that transcendental state of being-present beyond the limitation of being human. And with power to reverse time so I could be there to stop that event. But then and there, in that moment’s reality—in the privacy of my home, sharing that movie experience with my now ex-girlfriend, I felt impotent – wanting to vomit but not to spit. Historically obligated with at least guilt, I knew that if I vomited, I would keep the regurgitated taste of shame to myself.

    Yes, I still vividly remember the incredible work Don Cheadle did in that film. How he made me question if I had Paul Rusesabagina kind of transformative ability that makes us become heroes, or less: ordinary or cowards. Who would I become if I was placed in such a situation? How would I survive, with or without dignity? And on which side of history would I have stood?

    I love movies! Stories brought to life, so I could allow myself these personal emotional trips into that collaborative, artistic world, requiring that I do no more than watch and feel. The moment I begin to question the artist choices, I would disconnect. Stop watching. I never questioned the artistic choices made in this film, telling convincingly the painful and regrettable story about Rwanda’s genocide.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • Kathleen Cross

      thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      “The cure for the pain is in the pain.” -Rumi


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