The 16 Best Don Cheadle Movies, Ranked

It's hard to call an actor like Don Cheadle "underrated" given how long he's been active in the film industry. However, it feels like Cheadle isn't often recognized for what an incredible cinematic chameleon he is. Whether he's trading quips with Robert Downey Jr. in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, popping up in prestige dramas, or playing key supporting roles as part of sprawling ensemble casts, Cheadle has an incredible versatility to him.

Although Cheadle has been working since the 1980s, he's reached new levels of fame in the 21st century. In addition to delivering award-worthy performances in theaters and on comedy shows like "House of Lies" and "Black Monday," he's stepped into the directorial chair for his debut feature, "Miles Ahead." You'd be hard-pressed to find another actor who's able to create a performance like his Oscar-nominated turn in "Hotel Rwanda," and then pivot to hilariously reinvent Captain Planet like Cheadle did in his popular viral video series.

Need more evidence? Here are the 16 best Don Cheadle movies, ranked.

16. Hotel for Dogs (2009)

Cheadle has a maturity to him that makes him perfect to play figures of authority. This has helped Cheadle grant legitimacy to even the sillier projects that he's been involved with. "Hotel for Dogs" isn't regarded as a classic, but the film would not be nearly as effective if it wasn't for Cheadle's performance — he manages to take himself seriously in a movie that's full of jokes about dog feces.

"Hotel for Dogs" is based on the heartwarming book of the same name by Lois Duncan. The film follows two orphaned siblings, Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin), who start an independent business caring for dogs that need a home. Cheadle appears as the social worker Bernie Wilkins, who tries to help them. Even though Andi and Bruce spend the entire film looking for a family, Bernie is truly the father figure in their lives. It would've been easy for Cheadle to phone it in and exaggerate his performance, but he plays the part straight, making the film's focus on orphaned children more impactful.

It's a performance that's more powerful if you know a little bit more about Cheadle himself. Cheadle has never been afraid to voice his political opinions, and has used his status as a celebrity to discuss social issues and honor the work of volunteers. As such, it makes sense that he'd want to play a sensitive social worker in a film like this.

15. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

"Captain America: Civil War" allowed Cheadle to do more with James Rhodes, aka War Machine. The character is essentially the emotional center of "Civil War," and is unafraid to proclaim that the Avengers need to be held accountable for their actions. This was the MCU's way of dealing with the criticisms that had been leveled against it, and Cheadle provides an earnest voice of reason, particularly when Rhodes calls out Steve Rogers' (Chris Evans) hypocrisy during the debate over the Sokovia Accords.

There's also just a great dynamic between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Rhodey that adds some humor to one of the darkest films in the MCU. Although Rhodes listens to Tony when he discusses his feelings of guilt, he also pokes fun at him. The humor in the MCU doesn't always work, but the natural camaraderie between Downey Jr. and Cheadle provides laughs that don't diminish the story's dramatic weight.

Further, Rhodes' arc provides proof that there are consequences in the MCU. In one of the most harrowing moments in the entire franchise, James is critically injured during his pursuit of Rogers and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and his final scenes with Tony show that both characters are healing. Cheadle does a great job at showing how, even though Rhodes is injured, he is still moving forward.

14. Crash (2005)

Let's be clear: "Crash" is not a good film. It's one of the worst movies that has ever won the Academy Award for best picture, and serves as a further example that the Oscars are completely out of touch with what audiences are actually watching. "Crash" is a manipulative melodrama that struggles to address serious issues of racism, police brutality, and elitism. Of all the film's issues, chief among them is the cliched characters. Director Paul Haggis was simply not the right filmmaker to tell a story about Black trauma.

So, why does "Crash" make the list? Well, Cheadle is pretty extraordinary in it. It's one thing for an actor to elevate the material, but Cheadle essentially gives "Crash" much more legitimacy than it would have otherwise. While other actors, including Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Michael Pena, and Terrence Howard, are weighed down by the weak screenplay, Cheadle provides the righteous anger that the film needs. He appears as Detective Graham Waters, a police investigator looking into missing children in Los Angeles.

Waters is in a difficult situation. He genuinely wants to serve as a loyal public servant in the police force, and he struggles to admit the cops' failings. Further, he's put in legitimate danger when elements of his past resurface. Cheadle's quiet rage exemplifies Waters' unspoken defiance. He knows that, even though he is putting his life on the line, he'll never be considered an "equal."

13. Traitor (2008)

Cheadle has an inherently empathetic quality that makes him well-suited to play characters that evoke sympathy. In the 2008 espionage film "Traitor," for example, Cheadle stars as former U.S. soldier Samir Horn, whose family was killed in a car bombing when he was a child. Samir now works as an arms dealer in Yemen, but he's arrested on suspicion of being involved in a terrorist network.

It's soon made abundantly clear why Samir is placed under investigation: He's a devout Muslim. Cheadle has a confidence in him that signifies that Samir is not ashamed of his faith in any way. When he's questioned by FBI Special Agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), he calls out his interrogator's hypocrisy by shedding light on the U.S. military's egregious war crimes, and comports himself with an unparalleled dignity.

However, Samir is forced to work with a group of terrorists in order to root out their operation. Cheadle does a great job at playing up the performative nature of Samir's position; he must say radical things about his hatred of Americans that he doesn't actually believe. There's a palpable fear in Cheadle's voice when he speaks; Samir knows that any mistake could cost him his life. Although the film is occasionally blunt in its political statements, Cheadle's restrained performance helps ground this thriller in a sense of realism.

12. Hamburger Hill (1987)

Unlike many other films about the Vietnam War, John Irvin's 1987 epic "Hamburger Hill" does an admirable job of depicting the perspective of Black soldiers. African Americans were placed in a difficult situation during the Vietnam War: How do you fight for a country that does not guarantee your rights? Cheadle gives one of his earliest performances in the film as Private First Class Elliott Washburn, a new recruit sent to join the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division before the Battle of Hamburger Hill.

There is a power to Cheadle's silence. Washburn is the only Black soldier among the new recruits, and chooses to stay quiet when his fellow soldiers make egregiously racist remarks. While Washburn is clearly disturbed by their comments, he knows that he could be placed in harm's way if he speaks out. The film does a great job at showing how the Black soldiers in the division bond with each other. There's a particularly powerful moment during which Washburn helps calm down the medic Doc Johnson (Courtney B. Vance) after he has a mental breakdown following a violent battle. Despite his youth, the reassuring sense of authority that Cheadle brings to the role helps Johnson clear his mind.

Cheadle is the heart of "Hamburger Hill." He begins the film as a young, spirited rookie, and ends it as a battle-hardened veteran. Even though the film only takes place over a couple of months, it feels as if Washburn has aged beyond his years.

11. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Unfortunately, Cheadle wasn't given a whole lot to do in "Iron Man 2." While his performance was a significant improvement over Terrence Howard's in the first "Iron Man," Rhodey does little more in the film than serve as Tony's babysitter when he throws a temper tantrum. It didn't really give Cheadle a chance to show off the relationship he had developed with Robert Downey Jr. Thankfully, Shane Black managed to correct these errors with "Iron Man 3." Rhodey gets some of the best action scenes in the movie, while also doing some heavy lifting in its more dramatic moments.

Rhodey is one of the few people who knows what Tony is going through. Tony nearly perished during the Battle of New York in "The Avengers," and he's struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder ever since. Given Rhodey's experience in the military, he knows what it's like to risk his life. The simple conversations between Downey Jr. and Cheadle help ground the film; even though it's a comic book movie, Cheadle feels like he's playing an authentic military character. Rhodes also faces an ethical dilemma when he learns that Vice President Rodriguez (Miguel Ferrer) is involved in an international conspiracy.

Seeing Tony and Rhodey team up during the third act is simply delightful. It basically feels like a buddy cop movie with super suits, which makes sense considering that Black is the architect of the "Lethal Weapon" franchise. There's also a great recurring joke about Rhodey changing his name from "Iron Patriot" to "War Machine."

10. Traffic (2000)

Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" uses an interesting narrative device, intertwining multiple stories to deconstruct the illegal drug trade in Mexico. In an ensemble film like this, some stories are inevitably more compelling than others. Thankfully, Cheadle's segment is easily the best part of "Traffic." He appears in the film as DEA agent Montel Gordon, who's part of a storyline that revolves around the search for the drug lord Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer).

While this element of the film could have easily been nothing more than a basic police procedural, Cheadle injects personality into Gordon and fleshes out his motivations. He's clearly infuriated by Ayala's crimes, making his mission to convict the criminal feel much more personal. The film considers the complexity of the DEA, and examines its effectiveness (or lack thereof). However, the audience doesn't feel bad about investing in a character who works in law enforcement because of the personal relationship between Gordon and Castro. Cheadle and Guzman imply an entire backstory between the two that isn't explicitly stated. It's not in the script, but it feels like they've been working together for a long time.

Cheadle also imbues Gordon with a unique intelligence. There are moments where he is several steps ahead of the audience, and the film waits to reveal what his plan really is. It's a credit to Cheadle's patience that he's able to make this slow burn compelling.

9. No Sudden Move (2021)

Steven Soderbergh is a director who knows how to weave political commentary into films that would otherwise be considered populist entertainment. 2021's "No Sudden Move," for example, is a classic gangster movie that isn't afraid to embrace its pulp influences. However, the film also examines the social, racial, and economic tensions in Detroit during the 1950s. At the center of this study is the gangster Curt Goynes (Cheadle), who is called in to assist in an intimidation scheme that becomes increasingly complicated.

Goynes is no saint, but he does have reservations about harming innocent people. Cheadle does an excellent job at identifying Goynes' limits; he is shocked when the gangster Charley (Kieran Culkin) threatens to execute the family of GM accountant Matt Wertz (David Harbor). Cheadle effortlessly brings Goynes' quick decision-making process to life. He's going to have to be ruthless no matter what — the only question is what side he's on.

Similar to the relationship between Gordon and Catro in "Traffic," Cheadle has great chemistry with Benicio del Toro, who co-stars as Goynes' fellow gangster, Ronald Russo. While these are two professionals who don't go around spouting one-liners, the subtle physical signs that Cheadle and del Toro give indicate both characters' mutual respect for each other.

8. Out of Sight (1998)

It's easy to see why Cheadle and Soderbergh collaborate so frequently. Soderbergh is a filmmaker who likes to merge genres together. His 1998 film "Out of Sight" is a relatively tongue-in-cheek tribute to classic caper films, but it also has surprising moments of genuine emotion and legitimate menace. A film this idiosyncratic requires a villain with a sense of humor; Cheadle's ruthless criminal, Maurice Miller, certainly fits that description.

In "Out of Sight," Maurice reluctantly finds himself teaming up with bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney). Although the two characters share some light banter during their initial heists, it's clear that Maurice does not entirely trust his new ally. There's a great sense of tension that bursts to the surface when Maurice begins to question Jack's motivations. Cheadle is able to easily transform from a source of comic relief to a menacing antagonist; it's a shame that he hasn't taken more villainous roles.

7. Bulworth (1998)

Warren Beatty's 1998 political satire "Bulworth" is an ambitious, yet flawed study of inaction by modern political parties. While the film does not shy away from the depressingly selfish nature of politicians, its depiction of the racial divide in America leaves something to be desired. As a white director, writer, and star, Beatty did not make all the right choices in his depiction of the film's Black characters. This makes the Black actors particularly important; they had to flesh out roles that weren't written from an informed perspective.

Despite the film's flaws, Cheadle delivers a terrific performance as the drug kingpin L.D. It's a character who could have easily been a lazy stereotype, but Cheadle does a great job at identifying his worldview. When Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Beatty) brings up his criminal ties, L.D. calls out his hypocrisy. What makes a drug dealer like L.D. any different from a two-faced senator who is dishonest with his constituents? It's a remarkably sensitive performance that absolutely transcends the material.

6. Flight (2012)

Cheadle doesn't shy away from characters embroiled in challenging ethical dilemmas, like his role in Robert Zemeckis' 2012 drama, "Flight." The film asks the audience to question whether the protagonist is a hero or villain. After an alcoholic pilot named William Whitaker Sr. (Denzel Washington) miraculously saves the life of his passengers during a crash landing, an investigation reveals that he was intoxicated during the flight. Should he be hailed as a hero, or condemned for his recklessness?

It's one of the darkest performances of Washington's career, and the film needed a moral center to give the audience some direction. This is where Cheadle comes in. The actor gives an outstanding supporting performance as attorney Hugh Lang, who comes to Whitaker's defense during the investigation. Lang is put in a difficult scenario: He understands that Whitaker will face racist persecution, but he cannot completely defend his actions. As the viewers make their decision about whether or not Whitaker is worthy of redemption, the insights that Lang provides offer them plenty of alternate perspectives to consider.

5. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

When film buffs talk about the type of projects that "they simply don't make anymore," they're referring to movies like "Devil in a Blue Dress." How great would it be to see a fun neo-noir flick every few years? Carl Franklin's 1995 adaptation of Walter Mosely's novel feels like a classic thriller from the 1940s. However, films from that era rarely took into account a Black perspective. "Devil in a Blue Dress" rights their wrongs and features some of the best Black actors in the industry in a top-tier murder mystery.

While Denzel Washington's effortlessly charismatic performance as the hapless detective Easy Rawlins is impossible not to love, Cheadle is the film's scene-stealer. Mouse is an old friend of Easy's who comes to his aid when he becomes embroiled in a political investigation. Easy is expressly trying not to raise suspicions, which makes it even more hilarious when Mouse ends up getting a little too trigger-happy. It's a shame that "Devil in a Blue Dress" never got any sequels, because it would have been a lot of fun to see Easy and Mouse team up again. Although he was sadly overlooked for an Academy Award, Cheadle did receive a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best supporting actor.

4. Ocean's Eleven (2001)

There aren't a lot of movies that are as endlessly rewatchable as "Ocean's Eleven." While the original film from 1960 is almost unwatchable, Soderbergh's 2001 remake is everything that you could want from an ensemble heist movie. The secret to the success of the "Ocean's" trilogy? Soderbergh allowed the cast of famous actors to step outside of their comfort zones. Cheadle in particular took one of the biggest swings of his career when he adopted a cockney accent to play the crew's explosives expert, Basher Tarr.

Is Cheadle's accent good? Well, no, but it's not really supposed to be. In fact, his accent is so ridiculously eccentric that it perfectly compliments the implausibility of the film itself. Cheadle is generally an actor who exudes confidence, so it's fun to see him playing a geeky tech guy. "Ocean's Eleven" is easily the best installment in the franchise, but there's also a fun storyline in "Ocean's Thirteen" in which Cheadle's character, Basher, has to fly a helicopter to save Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon).

3. Boogie Nights (1997)

The greatest asset that Paul Thomas Anderson has as a filmmaker is his ability to generate empathy for his characters. "Boogie Nights" takes the world of sex workers and treats them with respect; instead of making the people in the porn industry the butt of a joke, Anderson explores the challenges they face in their everyday lives. While the cast and crew of Jack Horner's (Burt Reynolds) pornographic films dream of "making it," they each encounter numerous hardships that keep them from achieving their goals.

Cheadle gives one of the most empathetic performances in the film. Although Buck Swope is one of Horner's top stars, he dreams of having a somewhat normal life, one out of the spotlight. Cheadle shows a maturity beyond his years when he discusses wanting to have a family with his lover, Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters). However, Cheadle is also able to show how Buck became such a staple of Horner's films in the first place. Even when he's filming a goofy video promoting his equipment store, Buck is the consummate showman.

2. Hotel Rwanda (2004)

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is one of the greatest tragedies in modern history. It's also a massacre that has been routinely ignored, and any film that casts light on this horrific event has the ability to be instructive. Terry George's riveting 2004 biopic "Hotel Rwanda" tells the incredible story of Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle), a hotelier who rescued over 1,000 refugees during the height of the tragedy. Cheadle's unflinching depiction of a real hero earned him his first and only Academy Award nomination for best actor.

Although Rusesabagina's actions were unbelievably brave, Cheadle does not present him as a larger-than-life superhero. He's simply an average man caught in the middle of a complex political situation. Rusesabagina is presented with a challenging ethical dilemma early on in the conflict: Does his activism thrust his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and children in more danger?

The revelation that Rusesabagina ultimately comes to is that failure to take action would result in countless families being shattered. While this idea is subtly hinted at in the Academy Award-nominated screenplay, Cheadle shows his understanding of the film's thematic depth by becoming a paternal figure to the refugees in his care.

1. Miles Ahead (2016)

Cheadle's best film to date is also his most personal. Cheadle returned to his indie film roots to write, direct, and star in the offbeat dramedy "Miles Ahead." In it, Cheadle stars as Miles Davis, and even though the story is grounded in some historical details, the events of the film are largely fictitious. "Miles Ahead" takes a kaleidoscopic approach to Davis' life, showing the legendary artist wrestling with his legacy during a downward spiral in his career. It's a mature examination of artistic integrity that only a performer as experienced as Cheadle could pull off.

Cheadle's performance is simply a blast. There have been countless impressions of Davis on film over the years, but Cheadle's version of the musician is someone who has lived past his own apex, and who is relying on his past success to stay relevant. Cheadle explores this concept in a way that is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Intertwined with Davis' adventures with the dishonest reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) are flashbacks to his early career. During these scenes, Cheadle transforms into a young, energetic version of Davis who feels more grounded in reality.

There's no better way to tell the story of a larger-than-life icon than with a film that plays with the nature of format and structure. It's easily the most enjoyable and mature film of Cheadle's career, and a testament to his versatility as a storyteller.