DON CHEADLE - Playing Paul Rusesabaginia
"What they choose to greenlight or not to greenlight is based on the tastes of the studio. And the tastes of the studio are largely about what they think is going to make money. It’s commerce. The sort of cyclical self-fulfilling prophecy that they always point to is that black movies don’t make money. You know what I mean? Every movie has to have a huge foreign component, it’s much bigger than the domestic component, and they say, traditionally, black movies don’t sell foreign so we’re not going to spend a lot of money on them. And then if they do spend the money on them, they don’t spend the money on the marketing -- and nothing sells itself. The movie then doesn’t make money and they say, ‘See: the movie didn’t make money’. It’s kind of stacked against us, in a way.
Did you want to make a political statement with this film?
“I don’t think of this film as political. It may just be a cultural definition of terms but I think of it as humanistic, a people story, you know? I have sort of got involved in the politics because we’re dealing with the same thing today in Darfur, in the Sudan, and it’s kind of given us a platform to talk about those things that are still impacting the world. Paul [Rusesabagina] and I just went to the Sudan, as part of a congressional delegation, and went to some refugee camps, so it has taken on more of a political life now.”
Do you think people’s attitudes have changed since the Rwandan genocide or is it still the same?
“I don’t think it’s changed. I’m trying to make more people aware of the Sudan because so many people didn’t know anything about Rwanda and were saying, ‘God, I had no idea’. I want to make it hard for people to say I had no idea about the Sudan and Darfur. But it’s very similar in the fact that although it’s known about -- all governments know about it -- once again, no one’s lifted a finger to do anything about it.”
There’s no oil there.
“Yeah, that’s it. Well, there is oil there but it’s tied up with Chinese concerns and Russian concerns and that’s why they don’t want to do anything about sanctioning the Khartoum regime, I think.”
It sounds like this film is about more than just acting.
“Yeah, but I didn’t anticipate that to be the case. A lot of this came down the line because Amnesty International got involved, Congressman Ed Royce, who chairs the sub-committee on African affairs, saw the film and was moved by it and said, ‘This is a perfect film to bring attention to what’s going on now’ and we just started talking about how we could work together to do that. We then all travelled to Darfur, with a military escort, and all of these things just sort of caught fire because of the film. I didn’t anticipate going into it that anyone would give a damn. I thought we were going to make this movie and it was going to get about as much attention as the Rwandan genocide got. Although I knew it was a great story that I wanted to be involved in and a great script, every movie I do I go, I hope somebody sees it. You never know what’s going to happen with it.”
Has this made you more conscious about these issues?
“I’m more conscious of Africa and I’m more aware of the sort of machinations that go behind determining how something is deemed as genocide, how people help and what nations require to get involved. I’m more aware of that stuff now from my work on the movie. I don’t know if I’ve personally changed. I haven’t really sat down and thought about how I’m different. I’m sure that I am. I have seen things that I’ve never seen before, and experienced things personally and first hand that are harrowing and unbelievable, but I don’t know.”
Do you think the point of the movie is that Africa is always forgotten?
“It is always forgotten! I don’t know how anyone could argue against that. It’s been colonised by every nation in the world and raped and pillaged of all of its resources and then left to its own devices. It really kills me when people say Africans need to step up and take care of Africa. Well wait a minute: they didn’t get that way by themselves, they had a lot of help to get into that disillusioned place they are and the bankrupt place that they are. So to throw up your hands now and say that’s their problem is a little disingenuous and disgraceful, in my opinion.”
Terry [George, director of Hotel Rwanda] said he couldn’t get this funded in Hollywood because it’s not interested in anything but a particular type of African movie. Do you think this and the Oscar recognition might change that?
“I don’t think so. I think this is an anomaly. No one wanted to make it in Hollywood. We had to go outside that structure to get it made. It’s kind of finding its voice based on its own merits, not because Hollywood is behind it in any way pushing it and saying, ‘You go. . .’ It’s because particular members of the Academy, of the Screen Actors Guild, of the Golden Globes adjudicating committee have said we like this and we want to make sure people know about it and give it these nominations. So I don’t really see there being some big rush of African movies now. It would be fantastic, because there are so many amazing stories that are coming out of that continent, but I think it’s always going to be an uphill battle.”
Do you think the position and recognition of black actors in Hollywood has improved since what was considered a watershed year when Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier won their Oscars?
“We’ll see. That’s one of those things that in five years, 10 years, you’ll turn around and go, ‘Oh, it did change something’. We’re right in the blush of it right now but next year it could be different. And that’s not necessarily just a racial thing. That has to do with the mercurial nature of the industry. Certain movies get picked and made, other ones don’t, and the racial component isn’t necessarily always the largest consideration. It’s always a percentage of the question, but it’s not the only question. So I don’t know that we’ve seen something that changed across the board.”
Will Smith has said Hollywood is colour blind, it all comes down to the bottom line . . .
“Um, I’m sure Hollywood’s colour blind to Will Smith because Will Smith’s movies make a hundred million dollars and he’s been doing it for a long time. I don’t think Hollywood’s colour blind at all. But I do think if they could make a movie a shoe, and they thought it would make a hundred million dollars, that they would do it. They don’t care. If they thought that I was somebody who every time out of the box I’d make a hundred million dollars, they’d love my black ass. It wouldn’t be about ‘We hate him, he’s black’. It would be ‘Yo, go! If you make a hundred million, we make a billion’. You know what I mean?”
If you win the Oscar do you think they will make more films with this subject matter?
”I don’t think so. The subject matter is dictated by the tastes of the studio. What they choose to greenlight or not to greenlight is based on the tastes of the studio. And the tastes of the studio are largely about what they think is going to make money. It’s commerce. The sort of cyclical self-fulfilling prophecy that they always point to is that black movies don’t make money. You know what I mean? Every movie has to have a huge foreign component, it’s much bigger than the domestic component, and they say, traditionally, black movies don’t sell foreign so we’re not going to spend a lot of money on them. And then if they do spend the money on them, they don’t spend the money on the marketing -- and nothing sells itself. The movie then doesn’t make money and they say, ‘See: the movie didn’t make money’. It’s kind of stacked against us, in a way.”
How do you see the problem being resolved?
“I don’t think it will be resolved. It’s never going to be resolved until the people who are running the studios make it their agenda to resolve it, and I don’t see that there’s any incentive to resolve it. I know if I was running a company and spending $80 million on a movie, I would want to hedge my bets that it’d get a return. I think that’s the problem: we don’t need movies with $100 million budgets. I’d rather see 10 movies with $10 million budgets each than these huge behemoths that are the tent-pole for the studio, and if the movie doesn’t make money it’s like they’re done, they’re devastated, and 10 people’s heads are on the chopping block. But that’s not how the industry works.”
Sideways did very well.
“Exactly. We saw this five or six years ago. All the independent movies were up for the Oscars, or all making money, but they still went back to making Hulk and Spider-Man and everything with goblins from every different dimension of the world. We’re never going to see the end of the blockbuster. Steven Spielberg put that on and created that and that’s going to be the rally cry for studios for a long time to come.”
Do you think ethnic wars are worse than other kinds of wars?
”I think they’re the most terrifying. I mean the Rwandan one was amazingly terrifying. Priests were turning over their parishioners to the mob; teachers were handing their students over, and neighbours were killing neighbours. Overnight this change happened. That would be really terrifying. But I don’t imagine it would be any less terrifying having a bomb dropped on you from above or a missile fired into your house. All mass killing is bad.”
Has being involved in this project and going to the Sudan made you more sensitive to or aware of the cruelty humans can inflict upon one another?
”No. Ever since I was 10 years old and saw Night & Fog, and had my mind blown by seeing warehouses full of hair, of teeth, and purses, it was unimaginable to me but I couldn’t deny that I was seeing it and it was real. Since I saw that film I had always marvelled at man’s inhumanity to man but never doubted it. I have never been insensitive to it.”
That’s a good lesson in the power of film to affect people.
You must be hoping that this film has a similar impact…
“Yeah but the difference being that was actual footage. Those were real pictures. I wanted to make it somehow that it was made up, that it was a movie, but, you know, it was real. You were really looking at that. That was bulldozing bodies . . . that kind of stuff just broke me open.”
During the Rwandan crisis, the UN tried to make a distinction between “acts of genocide” and genocide. Do you think there is a difference?
”If you’re being chased or machine-gunned or bombed, would you think there was any difference between acts of genocide and genocide? And the thing that’s sort of ridiculous to me about even that determination is that the first article in the convention to prevent and punish the crime of genocide as the UN has accepted as their guiding point to how they respond, the very first article says that contracting parties agree that the crime of genocide, whether in peace or war, is a crime under international law which they take to prevent and punish. So you don’t have to wait until the numbers add up or you have determined or not if it’s ethnic cleansing and there’s a direct intent to wipe out an entire people of either ethnic or religious or racial background to prevent it. And when we have had, for 22 months, nearly 300,000 people being killed in the Sudan, prevention should have already happened. Then you figure out how to prosecute. Then you figure out how to punish. But first you have to stop it and nobody’s doing anything to stop it. The peace treaty was signed in January and the last day that Paul and I were in the Sudan, 105 people were killed in a village by the Janjaweed and the government of Sudan, so nothing’s being done.”