Hip Hop And Darfur: Part Three

posted March 07, 2008 12:00:00 AM CST | 5 comments

To say that Don Cheadle and Adam Sterling are busy men would be the understatement of this very new century. Cheadle, an Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe Award-winning actor, has starred in many of the biggest films in recent years: Out of Sight, Traffic, Oceans Eleven, Crash, and Hotel Rwanda, to name a few. Until recently, Adam Sterling was a UCLA graduate student, waiting tables in New York. While these backgrounds are as different as can be, circumstance brought these men to unite under a singular cause to end the genocide in Darfur.

After Cheadles role in 2004s Hotel Rwanda as the Rwandan Hotel Manager Paul Rusesabagina, who saved hundreds from certain death in the face of genocide, he became sensitized to the issues of genocide. He learned that through efforts to bring attention to the situation in Darfur. After the release of Hotel Rwanda, Cheadle saw his chance to reach people on a personal level.

After being invited to a Congressional delegation, Cheadle and John Prendergast (with whom Cheadle would eventually co-author the book Not On Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur) set out on a mission to get the word out. The result was both a book on the subject, and the documentary Darfur NOW [click here to read review].

The filming of Darfur NOW brought together the paths of Don Cheadle and Adam Sterling. Sterling, while waiting tables in New York, was flying to California on weekends to push for the Golden State to pass legislation in divestment on his own paycheck. HipHopDX caught up with Don Cheadle and Adam Sterling two extraordinary individuals who, if you ask them in person, will refuse to admit theyre anything special. You can be the judge of that.

HipHopDX: In the film Darfur NOW, there are six different people were you guided in telling in your characters, or were you allowed to express what you feel?
Don Cheadle:
There was no guiding. We tried to really make sure that we made a documentary, not some sort of narrative that was instructive in any way, shape, or form. The control of the content was more [guided by] what we covered and where we sent the cameras rather than what we did once they were there. It was amazing to see how it unfolded.

All those events happened to happen during that time. Things just happened to show up when you show it. It's a lot different from MTV documentaries, which are definitely guided and written. This one just kind of happened. In my storyline, Adam was happening before we started any filming so things occurred when they did.

DX: Was there danger involved throughout the filming?
Absolutely. There's a great moment in the movie where Recalde is driving, and they pan the camera over to the soldiers. We were surprised that they allowed a crew in there, knowing what was happening, knowing what our perspective was. We kept calling Ted and saying, "They know what you're doing, right? There's full disclosure, right?" And he said, "Yes, I keep telling them this is what we're making a movie about." And they kept saying, good keep coming. It doesnt matter.

Adam Sterling: I wanted guidance, but they wouldn't give it to me. This was all new to me. I remember the first couple of days when I first met Ted [Braun], I was in Southern California, waiting tables, working five days a week, and then on Mondays and Tuesdays I would fly up to Sacramento to go lobby. And I was just telling Ted, you should go meet this person and this person, and was telling him my story. In the meantime, he called me one day and he said, "Hey, we're going to film you a little bit and see how it goes." I said, "Okay but I'm going to work tomorrow." And he said, "I'll call you." I felt awkward, because I had never done that. And I was asking questions and they said, "No, you can't ask questions, be normal." [Laughs] And so I learned quickly that there was not going to be any guidance, but just free rein.

DX: Did you give any pointers to anyone like Adam about being on camera?
Yeah... cover for me. [Laughs] No, no, I didn't. In real life, if you try to look good on camera, you look like an idiot. At least with the script, you have some sort of cover, you're trying to play somebody else. But trying to play you, with some polish, you're going to look like an idiot. We tried to just be, and really allow to come through who we were and what we were trying to do. None of us are extraordinary people and that's the whole point of this film--that we're not extraordinary people. We are people who are just moved by something and have become passionate about something that we really think is the greatest humanitarian crisis on the face of the earth today. And in that effort, we are hoping that the result can be extraordinary. But I don't think that any of us looked at ourselves and thought we were special.

DX: One point in fact has been that in a way, one thing thats special in your un-specialness about getting involved in this. You've become so knowledgeable and an expert by your passion and drive. Do you look back and say: "God, how do I know all this shit?"
Definitely. I always tell people, when they ask, I say I was pulled into a stream that was already flowing. It was already moving, and Adam pulled me in. And John Prendergast pulled me in. And Congressman Ed Royce pulled me in. These were people that were already trying to do things in this effort, and I said well, give my light to to the sum of light and try to make it happen. Because I, too, think that that's what we need to be doing.

DX: To what extent do you see your work in Hotel Rwanda and on this movie as being part of the same genre?
As I mentioned, Royce--the one who pulled me into this--was the person who was trying to make noise on the Hill, he and his Democratic counterpart, Donald Payne (D-NJ) about Darfur, about what was happening in Sudan, and he wasn't having a lot of success raising the temperature on the issue.

And then Hotel Rwanda"came out. He saw it and he saw very similar echoes and a very personalized way of touching people, and he thought it would help bridge the understanding about Darfur. So there was a Congressional delegation and they invited me to go on it with he and several other members of Congress.

I went, and John Prendergast came, and the ABC cameras came and Nightline came and filmed it. And this just started this ball rolling downhill. And once I had been there, and seen the effect of what was happening and the devastation and talking to people, people who had nothing but meager bits, but were sharing a handful of peanuts...I was like, "Whoa..."

DX: How do we make this issue real to the people of this nation--in such a way that they can take the same path and not have it become a trendy political issue? We've seen that happen to Katrina and the Tsunami victims.
I think getting involved and being creative in your involvement and giving back, as opposed to just making a donation and never seeing that money again. There are so many ways to get involved creatively. We are a testament to that. So I think really finding a creative way to get involved, joining with others in your community [is what matters].

We've got a great network, The Genocide Intervention Network, where you get your own site and you get connected with community members. You're not just doing it by yourself giving money to some trendy cause you're actually involved in getting things back. And that's what made the difference to me.

There's a lot of work in activism, and [then there's the word] "burn-out." There's just so much to keep us busy. Countless people wanting to listen to you speak, to ask "What can I do?" I think there is so much to do that if you really put yourself into that, then you won't burn out.
DC: I think America as a country has actually done a lot more than a lot of other nations have done about awareness, advocacy, and trying to push their leaders forward. We're trying to get that to happen on a international level. The Genocide Intervention Network just recently opened an office in London, to deal with it on a European level, get it into a global scale. We're just trying to "move and shake," and just "move and shake" within the positions we can move from. Hopefully doors will open if we continue to push it.

DX: When actors get involve themselves in activism, it puts their careers into a different light. Do you talk to your friends about it, like George [Clooney] or Brad [Pitt]?
I don't know where it fits, vis a vis. I think a lot of people think doing advocacy work really helps in your career. I think, as you are a human being, and you're feeing off of being a human being, giving value and meaning to your life, then in all walks of your life it absolutely helps. As far as acting goes, it sometimes cuts against it. It makes it more difficult, as a career. It makes it more difficult in our business, because you get pigeon-holed. It's just another way to get pigeon-holed and people don't think you can do a bunch of things and those doors start shutting.

Does that mean that I stop doing it for me? No. Or George? Or others that I've spoken to? No. You keep doing it because that's where your heart lies. It definitely puts everything in perspective. Way more than my acting, it puts my family life into perspective, it puts my children's relationship to me in perspective--what are you trying to accomplish and achieve as a global citizen in the brief time that you're here?

What do you want to do? Do you want to be on record between you and your god and your family and your friends as having tried to do something? Or just, you know, to make as much money as you can and get a nice big house and cool ass cars and nice clothes? You can do that too. But I don't think thats how you want to measure yourself.

DX: You mentioned in the film, that you got a bill passed in California, and that there were like 15 more states coming along. What's the progress on that?
Yeah, we've been moving. California started because we were working at the university and the legislator came up to us and said, "This is a great idea, help me write this law. Okay, we helped him write a law. And then we started getting a call from legislators from all across the country. So in the last year--my final scene in the film, that was September of last year--we passed laws in another 12 states.

There are still four more pieces of legislation still in play. Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin just passed it this year. We've got commitments from legislators in another 15 states, so we're working on all 50. There's a federal bill in the US Senate that just passed the Senate banking committee. It's the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act, introduced by Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Richard Shelby (R-AL). It passed the House of Representatives in July. So that will bring divestment into a federal level.
DC: It's great timing, given the confluence of events that are happening at this time. There's peace talks they are scheduling in Libya at the end of this month. This year, there's supposed to be a 30,000-member peace-keeping force that's going to go into the area. So its really time, in our opinion, for us to push even more now.

These things don't happen with this sort of nexus all at the same time. Of course in 15 months we're going to have a new administration. And with the Olympics in China next year, a lot of stuff is freighting on Darfur right now. We need to use this opportunity to push that and keep making sure we're a present force in that.

DX: You just mentioned China. That's been a problem. China has been selling weapons to the Sudan government. Will this film create the kind of awareness that will affect US policy or UN's policy towards China?
Under this current administration, it is doubtful. I believe that everything in this current administration, as far as supporting that, is that weve got our heads up our you-know-whats all about Iraq and terrorism. I don't think that that will be anything we can focus on right now. So a lot of other things are getting second or third tier consideration. But America is only one component in the United Nations. We're trying to appeal to the greater body of governments, besides ours who has done more, a lot more, than other nations have?

When this 33,000-strong force of troops goes into the area, 27% of the budget will be from the US. That's a large portion in compared to what other countries have committed so far. We have done, on record, some positive things and forward thinking things, we're trying to continue to push them to do more.

And as George Bush considers his legacy, we're saying this should be a part of what your legacy is, if you want to resurrect it. You should stand up and be the only president to call a genocide a genocide while it's occurring. Now what does that mean? To actually push for change.

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