AP Photos/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Rosario Dawson epitomizes the actress as activist. The Afro-Cuban/Puerto Rican daughter of a sixteen-year-old mom, she was born and raised in New York City and burst onto the screen in 1995 in Kids, a shattering drama about wayward teenagers.
Dawson went on to co-star in dozens of other movies, including Men in Black II and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, Oliver Stone’s epic biopic Alexander, the musical Rent, Kevin Smith’s indie Clerks II, and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. She currently appears in Netflix’s Daredevil series.
Over the years, Dawson has used her fame to support numerous causes, including the nonprofit Voto Latino, which she co-founded to empower Latinos to be agents of change. She has also been active with Doctors Without Borders and The Nature Conservancy.
Dawson, who turned thirty-seven in early May, is passionate about candidates and causes and has a policy wonk’s command of issues, filtered through a free-form, artistic sensibility. In a recent phone interview with The Progressive, Dawson discussed her childhood, her career, her brush with incarceration, and her support for Bernie Sanders, among other topics.
Q: What in your background makes you so committed to social change?
Rosario Dawson: Many things. I was born in 1979, in Brooklyn, and had a teenaged mom. I was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in a melting pot of the city where you get to meet people in every walk of life. I’m multiracial—that made me want to investigate my history. We moved into an abandoned building. There were a couple of squatters who already lived there. We were the only family. I was six years old, my brother was one or two. When my parents moved in, there was no water heater or electricity. They helped develop it.
I grew up with activists. I saw when Tompkins Square Park was raided [in 1988] to get all the homeless out and the police riots and the tanks that came down Thirteenth Street and the helicopters. I watched how the city changed. It was really a great education.
Q: Are there any overarching themes to your activism?
Dawson: Yeah, I champion people. I really care about people. Not everybody gets how I grew up in my household, where you’re told you’re loved every day and hugged and how important this is. And that you can be anything you want to be. I’ve learned that you can do it all. It doesn’t take away from my acting or art to be an activist, and it doesn’t hurt my activism to be an artist. For me, it’s part of a well-rounded life.
Q: Tell me about playing a Black Bloc anarchist in This Revolution, which was set against the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.
Dawson: We were shooting at the convention. We had been there a lot of time, passed by lots of cops. We ended up all getting arrested, because we had masks on and there’s a no-mask law. They arrested Stephen [Marshall], the director. They took his camera. We were showing our permits for shooting and everything. They didn’t care; they just arrested us anyway. Then we got processed. It was really fascinating to see how they’d set up these cages on the piers to process 2,000 people a day. They were doing these huge sweeps. I was in jail at one point with a pregnant woman who was just trying to go home.
They were just arresting people en masse. That was kind of what our whole film was about—how people were being arrested so they could get their fingerprints and names and information. There was an undercover cop [who acted as an agent provocateur] as a way to arrest and process as many people as possible to get information about demonstrators. What we were making the film about was very real. And the arrest, which we didn’t plan, obviously, Stephen just ended up putting it into the movie.
Q: Your first movie was Kids, when you were sixteen years old. What was it like playing Ruby, a sexually precocious young girl? How do you relate to kids who had a rough time, as the daughter of a teen mom, and what do you want to say to young girls?
Dawson: Everything in Kids was based on real life. I recognized a lot of it. It was the time of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, crack, heroin, and other drugs. It was familiar to me. After that I was a calculus tutor at Cooper Union and took a civil engineering course at Columbia University. I was very far away from the character I was playing. But I recognized that girl. It was easy to portray her. I only worked four days on that movie and got picked off the streets, so I didn’t think much of it, until it came out and became a cult classic. It still is very stirring and captured a particular moment in New York history.
Parents still come up to me and say they show it to their kids to let them know the choices that you make can come back to haunt you. Yeah, you’re a teenager and want to experiment with sex, but—whoops!—now you have HIV. And that can happen the very first time you have sex and it can change the entirety of your life. I talk to young girls about this all the time. I think it’s important, sometimes, to take a hard look at things, even if it makes us a little uncomfortable.
Q: Why are you supporting Bernie Sanders for President?
Dawson: I’ve been a big fan of Bernie’s for many years. I’ve seen him on talk shows and have been interested in his positions, how articulate he can be, and his humanity. He just really spoke to me. He’s been this Cassandra of Greek mythology, warning us about things to come, and people not listening to him. He talked about the problems with [Bill Clinton’s] crime bill, which you didn’t see from anyone else—they were so gung-ho about it. From the Patriot Act to the Panama Papers, it feels like every single thing that was a really bad blunder, he moved forward aggressively and with conviction.
I don’t think Bernie is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think he represents a turning point for our country. It’s really time for us to shake off this idea that the only way we can do things is with special interests and ties to Wall Street and incremental change. With climate change, and with everything else that’s going on, we really need to act aggressively. And that is what Bernie is bringing to the table. He’s a leader on it.
Q: Bernie, of course, is a self-declared socialist. What is socialism?
Dawson: That is already our Social Security, our police force, our military, our fire department. Bernie is talking about specific places to expand our health care and education, which we’re already doing for K-12. He just wants to expand that to include college. We already have Medicaid and Medicare, it’s just expanding that to include many more people. It’s not so far-fetched and outrageous an idea.
People shouldn’t be losing their homes or be afraid to get sick. People should have paid family leave. We should be building more schools, not jails. These aren’t radical ideas. They’ve already been proven around the world. There’s a very particular reason why [some people] are trying to make this an awful scary thing but that’s because they won’t be making as many billions.
We have corporate welfare but we can’t have it for the people? People with power get to have all the breaks but everybody else at the bottom are moochers, they’re lazy, don’t want to work, and are just asking for handouts? Really? That’s the spin on this? I can’t stand for that. I have to say something against it. This is about being on the right side of history and looking out for each other. This is about being good human beings.
Q: What is your response to women who say, “Hillary is the most viable female presidential candidate in U.S. history, so we should get behind the woman in the race”?
Dawson: Why? What about her actual positions and votes? This is the most viable candidate who has had to apologize for lots of things. I don’t want to vote for somebody who has good hindsight. I want to vote for somebody who has good foresight. Her vote for the Iraq War and later apologizing for it—that doesn’t make me feel like, yeah, you’re the most outstanding candidate running for office now.
As a feminist, I feel like we’ve broken through the glass ceiling and I don’t have to vote for her based on her gender. Actually, I think that’s incredibly sexist to think that I should. I was incredibly offended when Gloria Steinem said the only reason women are going to Bernie Sanders rallies is because the boys are there. This completely belittled the feminist movement, by saying something so ridiculous. I appreciate that she apologized for it afterward.
For me, personally, I want somebody who’s trying to knock it out of the park, not bunt it. I don’t want someone whose strategy is to walk to first base. I want someone who’s aiming high. That’s how we move forward. That mass movement, especially of young people, has come forward. We’ve had movements on immigration, civil rights, the environment, anti-war, where people came together. And this is that movement, that moment again.
Q: What do you say when Hillary and her supporters call her a “progressive”?
Dawson: All that stuff seems really crazy. According to her, she was still proud in 1996 of having been a “Goldwater Girl.” She was a Republican for a long time, then she was very conservative and talking about conservative values and then she talks about being a progressive. I don’t know what she wants to call herself. Who cares? At the same time, Bernie has been an independent, a democratic socialist, now he’s running as a Democrat and he’s voted often with the Democrats. She’s voted quite often with the Republicans but calls herself a Democrat. These are all strange little titles.
Right now, I see someone being pulled more and more left because she recognizes that the Democratic Party wants that, and especially independents, which there are a lot more of. She once was for universal health care; now she’s attacking Bernie for proposing it. There’s no explanation how her convictions go from here to there.
Q: What do you think of Obama’s immigration record as the “deporter-in-chief”?
Dawson: Yes, I’ve called him out on that. When you talk about mass incarceration, you can’t not talk about our detention and deportation centers. We have to have 34,000 people in a bed every single day and these quotas to fill [in the centers]. It doesn’t matter if you’re pregnant, elderly, if you have a green card or are undocumented. You don’t have legal recourse or get to plead your case before a judge or access to legal help. There are really atrocious conditions and oftentimes, when you go to these centers they’re in more deplorable conditions than the prisons are.
There’s a really serious problem now of incarcerating people for profit. A lot of these private prison companies run on both sides and now they’re getting into rehabilitation. We have to break up these prisons and bring more schools and jobs, rather than jails, help people with mental illness problems, and not penalize people for small, nonviolent drug offenses.
Q: What are your hopes and fears for America?
Dawson: I really hope we have the courage to continue encouraging each other to choose a different option. That we stand together and don’t get divided. The system is rigged and broken. The New York primary was closed, so independents couldn’t vote. You had to have changed your party affiliation last October, specifically because they wanted loyal voters. They didn’t want insurgents to come in there. What you’re really saying is you don’t want new voters and the status quo to be interrupted. People in power want to keep their power.
People are pushing for a three-party system so we don’t have to keep being caught in this, so it really does feel like there’s a choice. When there’s more than two people you’re going to have to do a lot more to convince people to vote for you, because now the odds are not in your favor. That will be really remarkable for us.
Q: Is a new, third party a possible outcome of the Democratic primary?
Dawson: I don’t see why not. When you think what happened after 2008, the Republican Party was so upset and fractured the Tea Party was created. There is a real pushback right now with the way things have always gone, and people are going, “Enough is enough.” It’s happening all the world round. The system isn’t working right now.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is The Progressive’s “Man in Hollywood” and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.
From the June issue of The Progressive Magazine.