Words By Matt Barone
Photograph By Livia Corona
In November of 2005, a college kid named Adam Sterling invited actor-turned-activist Don Cheadle to the University of California, Los Angeles to discuss the humanitarian nightmare underway in Sudan's western region of Darfur. In all, eight people showed up. Two years later, thanks in part to their efforts, Darfur has risen to the top of the world's list of concerns, and Cheadle and Sterling are drawing audiences numbering in the thousands. "It's hard to quantify exactly," says Cheadle, "but our grassroots movement has been hard to ignore." And with Darfur Now, a studio-backed, wide-release documentary, they hope they can bring the troubled area to the attention of an even wider audience.
It was on a trip to Africa--for the filming of 2004's Hotel Rwanda, which earned the actor a nomination for an Academy Award--that Cheadle, now 42, first heard about the situation in Darfur. The population of Darfur, which is largely ethnically African, has for years been fighting with the mostly Arab Sudanese government over a variety of issues, including human-rights abuses and environmental resources. In 2003, the government helped fund Arab militias, known as janjaweed ("devils on horseback"), to attack villages in Darfur, causing a massive refugee crisis as people fled their homes. The conflict has since claimed 200,000 lives, and displaced more than 2 million people. Cheadle, who flew to the region to view the crisis firsthand, recalls the scene that greeted him: "I was met with the sweetest, most innocent children drawing images of death and guns," he says. "It triggered something in me instantly." Upon his return to the United States, he helped create the nonprofit organization Not On Our Watch to bring the atrocities in Darfur to the public eye.
Sterling, meanwhile, co-founded the Sudan Divestment Task Force. The organization lobbied for a bill to prohibit California's enormous pension systems from investing in companies that did business with the Sudanese government. The proposed legislation initially fell on deaf ears, but by September of 2006, Sterling--with Cheadle and his fellow celebrity-cum-activist George Clooney--stood alongside Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as he signed the bill into law. "It's amazing, because at one time I was struggling to get [UCLA's newspaper] The Daily Bruin to cover Darfur," says the 24-year-old Sterling. "All it takes is an effort."
It is efforts like Sterling's that are the centerpiece of the director Theodore Braun's new documentary, Darfur Now, which follows several people deeply involved in the conflict as they attempt to find a resolution. In addition to Sterling and Cheadle, the film focuses on Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the soft-spoken chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court who has been building a case of war crimes against Sudanese officials, and Hejewa Adam, a rebel fighter from Darfur, who sings playful songs about killing Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir while walking through the desert with a rifle. For Cheadle, who also serves as the project's producer, the film's focus on Adam shows what is really important. "It's easy for [Sterling and me] to be over here talking about injustices, but [villagers like Hejewa] can definitely pay real consequences for being vocal," he reasons. "If she can be that brave, then it's really very little for me to speak when somebody sticks a camera in my face."
Darfur Now, which documents Cheadle and Sterling's efforts
to convince the state of California to divest from companies doing business with the Sudan, was released on November 2, 2007.
Cheadle readily admits to exploiting his own celebrity in order to bring attention to Darfur, but he hopes that once he and others have appeared in front of enough cameras talking about the conflict, Americans won't need a famous face to wake up to the horror being wrought in another part of the globe. For both Sterling and Cheadle, the time for action was yesterday. "I don't care if [the media] calls it 'genocide,'" says Cheadle. "Call it whatever you want. Just realize that it's time to do something."
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