George Clooney's Activism in Sudan Recasts the Stereotype of Selfish Movie Stars


I’ve always been skeptical of Hollywood's celebrity activism. The major players of Hollywood hold tremendous influence, whether they like it or not, and many people around the world look up to the decisions they make; decisions that, let’s just say, are not always the wisest. Over the past few years, George Clooney has consciously chosen to become a celebrity activist, and I have to say, after examining his actions, he’s persuaded me to be a little less cynical when it comes to Hollywood activism.

In a January 2001, interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan, Clooney explained that his forray into activism occurred in the early 2000s when he was reading Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times columns chronicling the unfolding tragedies in Sudan. While the columns were well written and informed, they just weren’t garnering the attention the crisis warranted. So, in response to this, and the general lack of media coverage for similar events, Clooney decided to bring attention to the issue himself.

Since 2005, Clooney has made six trips to the Sudan and spent a considerable amount of time educating himself on the situation — which is anything but straightforward. In the Piers Morgan interview, Clooney mentioned spending a few hours every day reading up on the conflict -- a practice that speaks to his philosophy that activists should find one cause and dedicate themselves to it fully. He articulates in the same interview, that in order to be convincing you have to know precisely what you're talking about, and be able to field questions from both supporters and skeptics alike. This philosophy has undoubteley helped him as he's testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the UN General Assembly, and the UN Security Council.

This commitment to the Sudanese people lead Clooney to establish an organization called Not On Our Watch, which focuses on shifting "global attention and resources towards putting an end to mass atrocities around the world." According to its website, Not on Our Watch focuses on continued humanitarian crises in three areas of the world: Sudan/South Sudan, Burma, and Zimbabwe.

In addition to this organization, Clooney, along with John Prendergast, established a satellite regulatory system called the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) in conjunction with DigitalGlobal satellites, and analysis provided by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. The project's website states that the satellites goal is to deter:

"… a return to full-scale civil war between northern and southern Sudan and deterring and documenting threats to civilians along both sides of the border. SSP focuses world attention on mass atrocities in Sudan and uses its imagery and analysis to generate rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns."

As if these efforts didn't demonstrate Clooney's commitment to the cause enough, earlier this year, he was arrested, along with his father Nick Clooney, Martin Luther King III, and several congressmen, while protesting at the Sudanese embassy in Washington D.C. Clooney undoubtedly knew that his arrest would get serious media attention, and it certainly did. Every media outlet, from to the New York Times covered his arrest. Impressively, Clooney was insistent upon making the arrest about the Sudanese hunger crisis and human rights abuses in the region, and not about himself.

While his efforts abroad are considerable, Clooney also remains active in select issues at home.  Most notably, he has been a strong supporter of Barack Obama since his first election campaign in 2008, and continues to support the President in his re-election campaign. On May 10,Clooney will host what may well be the biggest fundraising event of President Obama's re-election campaign. Tickets to the now sold-out dinner, co-hosted by Dream Works Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, went for $40,000 per seat, and the event is estimated to raise about $12 million for the campaign. Six million of that sum will come from the tickets purchased, while it's estimated that the other half will come from a contest that puts the winner at the same table as Obama and Clooney.  Contestants enter the draw by donating to Obama's re-election campaign.

Back in Hollywood, Clooney has appeared as the informal head of a certain unofficial activist’s club, one that is comprised of intelligent, ultra-successful actors that all have a particular focus on bringing awareness to causes around the world. This club is not founded on pretension and narcicissm, but rather a genuine desire to bring attention to under-reported and atrocious crimes against humanity around the globe. Instead of doing activism for the sake of self-promotion, or making themselves look good, these actors seek to use their celebrity to promote the causes of marganilized groups of people. Not including Clooney, the most prominent members are Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, and Matt Damon, who also all co-founded Not on Our Watch. 

Keeping with his career, Clooney has also helped co-write, direct, produce, and act in several politically driven movies, including The Ides of March, Syriana, and Good Night and Good Luck. It’s clear that even though Clooney repeatedly says he’ll never run for office, he has a strong interest in politics and making sure that his choices in life promote awareness and thought.

It’s commendable that Clooney has consciously chosen to take his celebrity and use it to raise awareness and help others. No doubt, it would be easy for him to retreat into a life of luxury and comfort, never emerging from his famed home on Lake Como, and never giving a second thought to atrocities happening far from bubble of Hollywood. Instead, where others choose to act out against the constant attention that comes with the job, Clooney has chosen to accept it and use it to help others.  

While it would be easy to get infuriated at the constant paparazzi coverage of day-to-day life, it’s also a tool that can be used to shed light on otherwise rarely covered issues. This is exactly what Clooney has done; it’s certainly better than sitting back while mass genocide occurs around the world. Clooney continuously references his parents repeated mantra that when you are as lucky as he is, "you have a responsibility to look out for those less fortunate and to challenge the people in power."

While they jury is still out as to whether this outside, celebrity activism will have any positive, long-term affects on crises around the world, for now I think it's commendable that Clooney has chosen to use his celebrity strategically to highlight dire humanitarian situations, rather than being complacent in ignoring and brushing them aside. He supplements this activism by supporting politicians at home that he thinks can get the job done and be proponents of his causes.

And he's certainly made me a little less cynical about activism coming from major Hollywood stars, at least for now.