July 29, 2021

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‘Citizen Penn’ shows the laborious work behind Sean Penn’s celeb activism

3 min read



Penn might be a polarizing figure, but he’s by no means a dilettante, having rolled up his sleeves and put his time where his mouth is in addition to his money. In the process, he has tart words for people who attend glitzy fundraisers but don’t ante up for deserving groups and those desperately in need that they’re designed to serve.

Director Don Hardy weaves an extended interview with Penn together with footage of the work undertaken in Haiti after it was devastated by a massive earthquake in 2010. As a credit-sequence bonus, the film tacks on Penn’s efforts in distributing Covid-19 tests and later vaccinations in Los Angeles, reflecting the growth of the organization he birthed — originally called J/P HRO, which managed Haiti’s largest camp for displaced people, now known as CORE — bringing its charitable endeavors home to US shores.

As the documentary reminds us, Penn has a rather tumultuous personal history, and his regular forays into politics have often drawn criticism. His controversial adventures abroad have included visiting Iraq prior to the war in 2002 and later lambasting the Bush administration, meeting with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, and secretly interviewing drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in Mexico.
Still, as clips of Penn’s rescue efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina remind us, he’s no stranger to parachuting into stricken areas, doing a lot more to help during a crisis than just smiling for a photo op — exhibiting a level of compassion that garnered an honor from Nobel Laureates in 2012.

Despite his ideological alliance with the left, Penn also has little patience for what might be called Hollywood’s charity-industrial complex, built around lavish events to gin up donations. He’s shown essentially berating the crowd at a 2019 fundraiser, later expressing his distaste for the “hat-in-hand-ness” of the whole system.

As Penn is shown saying when he received his Oscar for “Milk” in 2009, the actor doesn’t always make himself an easy guy to like. The same can go for many of his brethren when they wade into politics, yielding familiar charges — especially from conservative media — about limousine liberals lecturing America and indeed the world.

Celebrities broadly and Hollywood specifically provide easy (and not incidentally, traffic and ratings friendly) targets. Still, as Regina King said when introducing the recent Oscar ceremony, “I know that a lot of you people at home want to reach for your remote when you feel like Hollywood is preaching to you, but as a mother of a Black son I know the fear that so many live with, and no amount of fame or fortune changes that.”

Being Sean Penn might provide you a platform, in other words, but as the title of this film seeks to underscore, doesn’t deprive you of the rights associated with being a citizen. And in Penn’s eyes, to paraphrase a line frequently associated with a comic-book hero, with the power and privilege of stardom comes a certain responsibility.

“Citizen Penn” premieres May 6 on Discovery+.



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