TheGrio Awards, Environmental Champion Icon: Don Cheadle

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The actor and activist has a long history of captivating audiences with his transformative performances and devoted humanitarian efforts.

Don Cheadle possesses many talents that make him an indispensable force in the entertainment industry. His primary artistry as a movie star, however, places him in a league of his own.

The beloved actor has consistently churned out powerful performances regardless of production size. The shining moment that ignited his career was his breakout role opposite Denzel Washington in the 1995 film “Devil in a Blue Dress.” He was named best supporting actor by the Los Angeles Film Critics as a result. Since that defining moment, Cheadle’s acting portfolio expanded as the leading man or co-star in major motion pictures and independent projects.

Don Cheadle
Don Cheadle of “Black Monday” speaks during the Showtime segment of the 2020 Winter TCA Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 13, 2020 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Earlier this year, Cheadle starred in Marvel’s new spy series on Disney+, “Secret Invasion,” beside longtime friend and colleague Samuel L. Jackson. Cheadle’s relationship with Marvel is extensive, with countless projects and supporting roles over the past 12 years. Marvel superfans were introduced to Cheadle in 2010 as an addition to the superhero universe as James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine in “Iron Man 2,” replacing Terrence Howard.

Cheadle’s stint in his supporting Marvel role ended as his character was promoted to lead in the upcoming film of the franchise, “Armor Wars.” Originally planned as a series, the Disney+ project is being redeveloped as a movie. Cheadle will reprise his long-standing role. The entertainer’s pivot to leading role reflects the evolution of his character throughout the years.

“In every successive film, he’s coming more and more out of Tony’s shadow and becoming his own person,” Cheadle said, as reported by Variety. “But we still haven’t explored who he is and really dug into that yet. That’s what the movie is for.”

Starring in major motion pictures has become second nature for the multi-faceted actor since the earlier stages of his career.

Cheadle’s prominence grew exponentially in the ’90s and 2000s. He starred in the 1996 HBO drama “Eriq La Salle’s Rebound: The Legend of Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault.” He was in the 1997 films “Boogie Nights” and John Singleton’s “Rosewood,” which earned him an NAACP Image Award nomination. He worked alongside Hollywood royalty such as George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the 1998 film “Out of Sight,” and Halle Berry in “Bulworth” (1998) and again in “Swordfish” (2001) with John Travolta. He received an Emmy nomination for his acting excellence alongside Cicely Tyson and Mekhi Phifer in the 1999 HBO adaption of “A Lesson Before Dying.”

In the 2000s, Cheadle acted in the Academy Award-winning movie “Traffic,” in  “Mission to Mars,” and in Brett Ratner’s “The Family Man.” He stacked his résumé from 2001 to 2004 with “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Manic,” “Things Behind The Sun,” “Ocean’s Twelve,” and his production of “Crash,” which also won an Oscar for best picture.

In between starring in major movies, Cheadle also took dives into television and started becoming recognized for those appearances as well. In 1998, he portrayed entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. in HBO’s “The Rat Pack.” His stellar execution of the famed singer, actor, comedian, dancer, and multi-instrumentalist won Cheadle a Golden Globe Award and Emmy nomination for best supporting actor. He appeared in the live television broadcast of the 2000 drama “Fail Safe” and in numerous series and sitcoms: “The Golden Palace,” “Picket Fences,” “ER,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “House of Lies” and “Black Monday” to name a few.

One of Cheadle’s most notable roles was in “Hotel Rwanda” as Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who saved lives during the Rwandan genocide. The 2004 war drama captivated audiences with its depiction of genocide, Rusesabagina’s heroic efforts, and survival. The actor was recognized for his powerful portrayal of Rusesabagina with nominations for an Oscar, Golden Globe, and Broadcast Film Critics and Screen Actors Guild awards for best actor. Since then, Cheadle has added film and television credits including “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Reign Over Me,” “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “The Guard,” “Flight,” “Miles Ahead,” “White Noise” and more, along with several Marvel features.

As natural as it appears for Cheadle to depict these significant characters on screen, one of his earliest roles was as a rat from “Charlotte’s Web” in elementary school.

It was his fifth-grade teacher who introduced him to acting, and he later started to think more critically about the development of characters. Cheadle continued to explore the art form in high school after taking a theater class where his skills further advanced and prepared him for a lifetime dedication to the craft. He attended the California Institute of the Arts in the early ’80s. He and his friends auditioned for roles and were booked for parts in the television series “Fame.” In his junior year, he landed his first movie role, in “Moving Violations,” where he played an employee at a fast food restaurant.

"White Noise" Photocall - 79th Venice International Film Festival
Don Cheadle attends the photocall for “White Noise” at the 79th Venice International Film Festival on August 31, 2022 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

The esteemed performer explored his other passions and talents in the arts. He plays the saxophone, writes music, and sings. He is an accomplished director and producer. “Traitor,” “Crash,” and “Miles Ahead” are a few projects attached to his name. Additionally, he was nominated for a Grammy in 2004 for best spoken word album for his narration of the novel “Fear Itself.” Cheadle has since won two Grammys: in 2017 for best compilation soundtrack for visual media for “Miles Ahead” and in 2022 for best spoken word album for “Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation from John Lewis.”

Cheadle’s prolific achievements have garnered him much acclaim and attention throughout his widespread career.

While he has transformed into some of the most dynamic characters, one of the most significant roles is as activist/ humanitarian – and it stemmed from his part in “Hotel Rwanda.”

“Well, the experience was one thing and what it did for my career was one thing, but what dwarfed that in many ways is what it triggered as far as me being an activist,” Cheadle said in Vanity Fair.

“Hotel Rwanda” played a significant piece in cultivating his advocacy for genocide victims and, eventually, climate change. Cheadle founded “Ante up For Africa” in 2006, a charity that raised money for survivors of the conflict in Darfur, Sudan. In 2007, Cheadle, along with George Clooney, received the Peace Summit Award presented by Nobel Peace Prize laureates. The pair raised money for refugees and provided efforts to help end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur through their charity, “Not On Our Watch.” That same year, Cheadle was also awarded with the BET Humanitarian Award.

In 2010, Cheadle was appointed a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Environment Program and used his platform to encourage the public to adopt more sustainable living practices.

“…We need to educate people on the environment and draw clear connections now – it is not disparate pieces, it really is a chain of life,” Cheadle said. “We have to connect the dots. I am surprised the environment is not at the top of the agenda. What is more important than clean air and a healthy planet?”

In 2014, Cheadle participated in the documentary series “Years of Living Dangerously,” where he explored the ramifications of a drought that economically impacted a Texas town. The activist also works with the Solutions Project, which aims to provide clean energy and access to healthy air, water, and soil for communities in need. Cheadle serves on the board of directors of the national nonprofit and continues his advocacy with other philanthropic activities.

Cheadle’s extensive achievements and accolades provide a masterclass for combining talent and hard work. His unwavering dedication to the arts and humanitarian efforts make him admirable on and off-screen.

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