Creating a Legacy

UPDATED: April 25, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 25, 2011

The world is filled with people who live only for their own fame and fortune, giving little thought to the needs of others. This is especially evident in Hollywood. While many seek bright lights and riches, there are a few who see fame as an unequaled opportunity to effect change. One of these is actor Don Cheadle.

In 2004, Cheadle was a successful yet relatively unknown actor with some supporting roles in some good movies. Cheadle says he was living the stereotypical Hollywood actor’s life of money and girls. Then he read the script for a movie that would change his life and bring him meaningful success.

Hotel Rwanda is the true story about the actions of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in Rwanda who put his own life in jeopardy to save others. In 1994 Rusesabagina opened his hotel to protect 1,000 people rebels were trying to kill. In three months’ time, 1 million people were murdered in Rwandan unrest. The movie and its cast were nominated for many awards, including Cheadle’s Academy Award nomination for best actor.

Cheadle’s role catapulted his career and set him on a mission to help people around the world affected by genocide. At one point in the film, Cheadle as Rusesabagina is talking with a photographer. The photographer tells him the images he’s shooting may not be much help in changing attitudes in the United States. Rusesabagina asks, “How can they not intervene when they see such atrocities?” It was a question that resonated with Cheadle offscreen.

“Preventing genocide and other mass atrocities is a challenge made all the more difficult by a lack of public concern, media coverage and effective response, especially to events in Africa,” Cheadle later wrote.

Cheadle knew he needed to use his fame and fortune to help prevent genocide. Like any truly successful person, he took immediate action and hasn’t stopped. He has used his influence to carry out a number of projects to raise international awareness of the genocide in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region. Since 2003, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been raped and murdered, and millions have been forced from their homes to become refugees.

Last year, Cheadle got together with people he worked with on the 2001 film Ocean’s Eleven to start Not On Our Watch. Founded by Cheadle and co-stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon and producer Jerry Weintraub, the organization encourages governments and international organizations to take action by providing clean water, basic health care and shelter to families; and by helping women and children, the targeted demographic for genocide in Sudan. The organization also helps protect humanitarians in Darfur.

Cheadle and Clooney were awarded the Peace Summit Award for their work at the 8th World Summit of Noble Peace Prize Laureates. In accepting the award, Clooney said, “We do concerts, rallies, where thousands of people show up and say how terrible it is. But the truth is not one single thing has changed. Now it’s time to turn that corner. If they are lucky enough to escape rape, torture, murder and survive malaria and AIDS and starvation, [they] should at least have the chance to live.”

Cheadle didn’t stop there. In 2007, he and human rights activist John Prendergast released the book, Not On Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond. The book is a guide for those who want to become involved and make a difference in Darfur.

Last summer, Cheadle, an avid poker player, organized the Ante Up for Africa tournament at the World Series of Poker. Paying a $5,000 entry fee, half going to relief efforts and the other half to the prize pool, 170 players signed up. The event included many of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Ben Affleck, Ray Romano, Adam Sandler and Martin Sheen. As a touching end to the event, the final two players, Dan Shak and Brandon Moran, stood up at the table and announced they would donate all of their winnings to the cause— almost $400,000.

At the end of 2007, Cheadle released Darfur Now, a documentary he produced and starred in, relating the stories of six people from around the world affected by the atrocities in Darfur and involved in relief efforts.

Cheadle realized his success was not a destination, but a platform to achieve significance. He has used his good fortune to encourage and mobilize others to make a difference. While most of us will never be movie stars, we strive to achieve success. Cheadle is someone we can emulate as we embark on our journey toward success and significance.

Read more articles by Chris Widener