The Activist Actor, Not the Celebrity Cause

By Fazila Farouk · 27 Feb 2010

A+ A= A-
    Print this page      0 comments
Picture: Miraflores Press Office
Picture: Miraflores Press Office

"It takes all kinds," is an expression that couldn't be truer in Hollywood. 

Regrettably, we tend to be served up a one sided view of Hollywood. We get to see the glitz and glamour, but rarely are we afforded the opportunity to peek behind the veneer of celluloid magnetism to catch a glimpse of the real people behind the superstars of today's movie industry. Why should we care about them? Well, because the heroes and heroines of Hollywood's silver screen wield an enormous amount of influence in the world and have the media eating out of their hands.

They're the Greek gods of the modern era and incredibly adept at using their celebrity appeal to rake in the riches. From Halle Berry getting a perfume named after herself to Kim Cattral endorsing Nissan and Mercedes-Benz, the stars and starlets of brand conscious Hollywood tell us what to wear, eat, drink and drive. Witness the middle class' cloying imitation of the lifestyles of the rich and famous and it dawns upon one that it's not a hard sell at all for these celebrity merchandisers. 

But beyond 'brand Hollywood' are real people, perhaps living in a bubble of extreme comfort, but not entirely disconnected from the real world, its politics, its natural disasters, its social challenges, its inequality and so on. They also happen to be acutely aware of the fact that they are among a handful of mortals chosen to live the life of gods on this planet. Listen to any of them being interviewed and invariably the conversation steers towards "how lucky and blessed they feel they are." But in saying all this they also know that their audiences range from Hong Kong highflyers to Soweto slum dwellers -- and that they've got to identify with this wide ranging following. The Hong Kong highflyers are no doubt taken care off by merchandising escapades. George Clooney sells them Omega watches when he’s not campaigning for the somewhat misguided Save Darfur campaign.

But, what about empathising with the concerns of the moneyless masses?

Well, Hollywood stars are queuing up to become United Nations (UN) Goodwill Ambassadors. The UN bestows upon each celebrity his or her own very special 'celebrity cause'. Along with adopting a baby from the third world, it rates amongst the hottest Hollywood asset. And, given that there are only 100 celebrity UN ambassadors in the world today and that being a "humanitarian" is a 'must have' on today's Hollywood CV (or resumé as they would call it in Hollywood), I'd say it's a very sought after job. 

You can even find a list of Top Ten Sexiest UN Goodwill Ambassadors, which includes our very own Charlize Theron. Theron managed to scoop the coveted "Messenger of Peace" honour. Messengers of peace are personally recruited by the secretary general of the UN, that would be Ban Ki Moon today.

Sexy UN ambassadors jet around the world for career building photo opportunities at schools, clinics, women's shelters and refugee camps. They're the band-aid that the UN pulls out whenever disaster strikes. As one commentator writing in the Guardian put it, "They are there to sprinkle star dust." Ever willing to do their bit in front of the cameras they talk to the media, work loose the purse strings at glamorous fund-raisers and hold the hands of dusty children in slums around the world.

And they're hugely competitive. "Brangelina" coughed up a million dollars for the Haiti earthquake relief effort. That's double the paltry US$500,000 Jennifer Anniston managed to muster. Not to be outdone by the superrich actors, super famous model Naomi Campbell responded with that unfortunate misnomer, the "relief catwalk."

However, while Angelina Jolie tries to save the world one adopted baby at a time, one wonders if she understands the concept of 'cause and effect'. A 2007 estimate, put the number of refugees from the Iraq war at 3.8 million people. Jolie is UNHCR goodwill ambassador for refugees. With 45 million refugees in the world today, largely as a result of wars and conflicts, you'd think she'd be violently anti-war. But she's not. She especially doesn't have the backbone to challenge, much less question, her own government's warmongering ways. This was very much in evidence in a somewhat pathetic opinion piece she penned in the Washington Post, pitifully making the case for Iraqi refugees.

Jolie, Theron and whoever else belongs to that sexy UN ambassador group are not activists. 

Activists take a stand on issues based on a consistent and clear understanding of the ethics and goals of social and economic justice. They don't engage in acts of charitable kindness to appease their consciences, they challenge systemic injustices.

Real activist-actors would be more like those belonging to the Coalition of Celebrities Against the Iraq War, a group that swam against the tide when it was very difficult to do so, taking a firm position against the illegitimate war of aggression against Iraq in the early days after the 9/11 attacks. Among the leading lights of the anti-war campaign are Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen. They speak at rallies organised by grassroots activist groups, such as Code Pink (a women's peace group against all wars as well as Israel's occupation of Palestine).

The mainstream media largely ignores the activism of actors such as Sarandon, Robbins and Sheen. There's no clamour for glamour in what they do. When Sarandon joins a street protest - to her credit - she melts into the crowd looking like any other activist holding a placard.

Martin Sheen's activism is legendary for his embrace of civil disobedience when the occasion calls for it. He's been arrested more than 70 times in various protest actions. Still, he appears completely unperturbed and extremely committed to supporting unglamorous grassroots causes such as labour rights for farm workers. Even while playing the president of America in the West Wing television series, he continued with his activism while the threat of losing his job constantly hung over his head. It was around that time that he famously said to an interviewer at a protest march in Los Alamos, New Mexico, "I work for NBC to make a living. I do this to stay alive."

Sean Penn, too, spoke out against the Iraq war. On 18 October 2002, Penn took out a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post, at a personal cost to himself of US$56,000, dissuading then President George W. Bush from his War on Terror effort. Penn works as a part-time journalist and uses his activism to demystify so-called nonconformist cultures (read: communists and Islamists) as well as build bridges between these and the West.  In 2005, without any fanfare, he travelled to Iran and wrote an epic article for the San Francisco Chronicle, putting a very human face on Iran and its people. His curiosity about so-called dissident states has also led him to Cuba where he interviewed Raúl Castro and Venezuela where he interviewed Hugo Chavez for an article that was published in The Nation. Penn is very clear about Venezuela being a democracy and about Chavez not being a dictator.

Like Penn, filmmaker Oliver Stone is keen to dispel Western myths about Latin American leaders. In 2009 he released the documentary "South of the Border," which is highly critical of the American Media's coverage of Chavez and other Latin American leaders. Chavez joined Stone for the premiere of the documentary at the Venice Film Festival in 2009. 

Stone is not your typical activist. He doesn't deliver speeches and join protest marches, but easily makes the grade because of the issues he cares about and the great effort he has always put into using his talent for social commentary. Amongst other things, he is anti-war (movies: Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), anti-violence (movie: Natural Born Killers), and anti-corporate greed (movie: Wall Street). What Stone portended in his 1987 feature film, Wall Street, became the real world's global financial crisis of 2008. His sequel to the movie, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, made after the 2008 financial crash, will be released in cinemas shortly.

No article about Hollywood activism would be complete without mentioning Danny Glover. You won't find Glover at the World Economic Forum (WEF) frequented by Bono. Glover attends the World Social Forum where the grassroots vision for an alternative world contrasts sharply with the cliché-ridden solutions trotted out by the global elite at the WEF. Though he too is bestowed with the dubious honour of being a UN goodwill ambassador, Glover's activism precedes his involvement with the UN and takes him far beyond it. Back in the day, he was active in the international anti-apartheid movement and today, continues to keep his finger on the pulse of systemic causes of poverty and underdevelopment. He is against America's military ambitions in Africa and vocal about his opposition to Africom, the US Africa Command.

The work of activists is not glamorous. There are few rewards, even for those who stay the course and have the benefit of fame on their side. It takes time and commitment to participating in as well as building a broad-based movement for change -- and huge personal sacrifices. 

For their efforts, Hollywood's activist-actors have more than just credibility in front of the camera; they have credibility on the street too. It's such a pity then that even though they may be superstars, the entrenched and irrational prejudices of the mainstream Western world continue to create stumbling blocks, hindering their efforts at contributing towards building a more tolerant, peaceful, equitable and caring world.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page      0 comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!