Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sean Penn taken to task for supporting Venezuelan and Cuban leaders

In a Nov. 25th essay published first in The Nation and later on The Huffington Post ("Conversations with Chávez and Castro"), actor Sean Penn takes what turns out to be a rather benign look at Cuban leader Raúl Castro and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez - both of whom he visited.

I have little patience for Hollywood actors going on 'fact finding trips' to countries like Venezuela and Cuba when it's obvious that the access they get to the upper echelons of power is due to their political leanings and their fame. It's certainly great PR for despots who want to come off as cuddly and nice and it certainly highlights the unfortunate tendency by some in the left wing of the United States to romanticize the Cuban revolution and the emergence of left wing "revolutionaries" such as Chávez in Venezuela.

Jump ahead a few weeks and you have a Dec. 9 piece by James Kirchick in The Advocate using the essay in The Nation to criticize Penn on the issue of gay rights ("A friend to gays and anti-gay dictators alike"). Penn, of course, is currently playing gay icon Harvey Milk in the Gus Van Sant flick "Milk" and the editors at The Advocate must have jumped on the chance to run an OpEd piece countering the hosannas the actor has been receiving for his portrayal of the gay rights leader (contrarian OpeEd pieces draw readership).

Considering my comments above, you might think that I agree with Kirchick's argument that Penn's benign take on Castro and Chávez compromises the actor's pro-gay stand (or his portrayal of Harvey Milk). I don't.

There are valid arguments to be made that gay-rights have been curtailed under both Castro and Chávez (ongoing reports that LGBT rights organizations in Cuba have been censured as well as Chávez personal uneasiness with the question of homosexuality matching recent criticism from gay rights organizations and a recent decision by a top court to ban same-sex marriages) but Kirchick seems to have his own ideological blinders in assuming that there have been few gay rights advances since Reynaldo Arenas wrote "Before Night Falls" (1992).

The fact is that there have been momentous advances in Cuba when it comes to LGBT rights - particularly over the last five years although government intervention and censorship remain and dissident views are still penalized. And, while Chávez might be homophobic and the Venezuelan top court has banned same-sex marriage, there are annual gay rights marches in Caracas and other cities and several LGBT rights organizations and activists who are pretty visible and who speak to press freely even when criticizing their president.

So while I personally find that Penn lets his ideology get in the way of his appraisal of the Cuban and Venezuelan leaders, the same can be said of Kirchick when it comes to the hit piece on Penn.

As for "Milk" - Saw it a couple of nights back. Not sure if my expectations were too high but I didn't think it was all that. Except for Josh Brolin's brilliant portrayal of Dan White, it came off as a little too didactic and rushed for me (despite it's length), which seems weird since most people who had told me they'd seen it had loved it.

Update: Cleve Jones wrote a letter to the editor in response to the Kirchick OpEd defending Penn. An excerpt:
Sean Penn is a citizen of the world. He harbors a tireless curiosity and a healthy skepticism, so he goes out and ascertains things for himself firsthand. His explorations as a journalist have put a spotlight on some of the biggest issues of our time: in Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and -- closer to home -- New Orleans. His visits and dispatches have opened avenues of communication and encouraged dialogue.
It still doesn't address that Penn is given unparalleled access denied to hundreds of objective journalists and is treated as what he is - a Hollywood star - in part due to the fact that his past essays have shown him to have a benign view of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments.

Totally unrelated but related - Rex Wockner didn't think it was all that either:

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