AFI Fest 2020 Review: ‘Citizen Penn’ is Celebrity Philanthropy Done Right

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Sean Penn is no William Hearst. In fact, the two-time Academy Award winner is the fundamental opposite of the newspaper tycoon whose life inspired Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Rather than drown in greed and booze, Penn poured millions of his Hollywood earnings into launching a global relief organization. Why flaunt fame when you can use its monetary influence for those most in dire? With Citizen Penn, documentarian Don Hardy brings awareness to CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), formerly known as the J/P Haitian Relief Organization.

Their mission statement boils down to three factors: trust, collaboration, and results. To call the doc a vanity project blinds yourself because humanitarians often have deep pockets. Moreover, altruistic celebrities like Sean Penn do more than just click a button or sign a check. The only self-congratulations done are among a team of intrepid individuals once the tireless work is over. Many of them are natives of the particular country affected by these natural disasters and virulent diseases. Penn admits that without their efforts, CORE would not be the pillar example of joint aid response that it is today.

January 12, 2010, mobilized Penn to start something that would cushion the blow of geohazard catastrophes moving forward. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti that day, reducing the capital city Port-au-Prince to miles of rubble in mere seconds. With over 500,000 injured and half as many killed, this was the most devastating displacement crisis the region had faced. Diving into action upon landing, Penn quickly set up encampments outside the capital to house the injured and homeless. J/P HRO rotated the best doctors money could find, and Penn himself made use of his friendship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Through their dealings, Penn secured morphine and other vital medicines for patient distribution.

Eventually, J/P HRO pulled enough funds and resources to set up livable tents outside the capital. Today, it’s a newly renovated housing zone thanks to the organization’s initial gamble of open territory resettlement. Sometimes the doc gets so involved in what Penn is accomplishing, it overlooks some individual efforts from other volunteers and helpers. We never hear from other celebrities with actual Haitian roots like Wyclef Jean, Usher, and Garcelle Beauvais, to name a few. What are their thoughts, if any, on Penn’s philanthropic approach to the ruination? Citizen Penn could benefit from their collective voices weighing in since Haiti is closer to their hearts than Penn’s; otherwise, you’re simply perpetuating the “white savior” complex.

CORE, however, is emphasized as an organization that doesn’t try to control methods of recovery. They listen to citizens and honest politicians who know their country’s modus operandi about how to best facilitate livelihood restoration. Penn’s institution has only grown more efficient in the past decade, especially with the installation of CEO Ann Lee. She left aid organizations too self-interested in solving real problems with immediacy. Today, the valiant response group is a leading force in worldwide COVID-19 testing.

Most satisfying is how Penn isn’t afraid to call out his A-list peers. Several segments feature Hollywood fundraisers designed to raise money for Haiti’s rehabilitation budget. Wealthy attendees enjoy these galas and free catering, but they shirk responsibility when called to donate. It’s unfortunate Penn is legally prevented from exposing these contemptible individuals by name, who are the real freeloaders in this chaos. If anything, Citizen Penn challenges fellow actors and celebrities to stop paying lip service on social media and start saving the lives they pretend to care about.

Citizen Penn was a part of AFI Fest 2020’s documentary lineup and is currently seeking distribution.

Written by
Joseph Braverman is a 31-year-old film school alum from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Digital Media. He considers himself one of the biggest Star Wars fans in the galaxy, living by a golden rule that there is no such thing as a “bad” Star Wars movie. Joseph lives in Los Angeles, CA, and enmeshes himself in all things entertainment, though he’ll occasionally take a break from screen consumption to hike in Malibu or embark on new foodie explorations. Vehemently opposed to genre bias, he feels strongly that any good film is worthy of Oscar consideration. Joseph is also a proud member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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