Citizen Penn


Some citizens are more badass about getting things done than others.

(2020) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sean Penn, Anderson Cooper, Cécile Accilien, Capt. Barry Frishman, Dr. Justine Crowley, Tommy Prato, Alastair Lamb, Edgar Nonce, Dr. Dominique Valentin, Laurent Lamothe, Ann Lee, Jeff Dorsey, Amani Phillips, Avery Harrell, Pamela White, Alexandra Kuykendahl. Directed by Don Hardy

 

When you think of Sean Penn, what comes to mind? Spicoli? His years as Mr. Madonna? Punching out a paparazzi? Two-time Oscar winner? Fox News whipping boy? Or dedicated activist and philanthropist who made Haitian relief a priority?

Chances are it isn’t the latter, but that is what this documentary is about, and judging on what is in the film, is what Penn himself is about. The one-time bad boy has not mellowed, but he has matured; there is a big difference. He has been associated with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, which is remarked about but not gone into great deal here. Mostly, it is mentioned mainly because Penn prevailed upon Chavez to provide 350,000 doses of morphine for Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake when nobody else would.

This documentary, currently airing on the Discovery Plus streaming service (click on the link below if you want to check it out although you will need to be a subscriber if you want to see it), consists largely of an interview with the actor in which he smokes incessantly, and talks plainly about his time in Haiti and of the obstacles he faced there. He also talks about the courage and compassion of the Haitian people, who refuse to see themselves as victims.

There is also a whole lot of footage of the disaster (and the ensuing hurricane that formed a one-two punch with the earthquake that nearly leveled the island). Penn talks about taking a helicopter trip in a U.S. military helicopter at one point and suddenly realizing the scope of the disaster; it is hard to see it when you are looking at individuals and small spaces. The devastation was so widespread it is amazing that Haiti has recovered at all.

It is admirable that the focus of the film shifts about halfway through, from Penn and his efforts to that of his organization, originally known as J/P HRO (Jenkins/Penn Haiti Relief Organization) but is now known as CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and how the volunteers there have taken over and helped Haitians take charge of their own relief.

The film makes the distinction between celebrities who support relief organizations and those who actively help on the ground where it is needed. Penn is most definitely one of the latter; he stayed in Haiti working 20-hour days long after the TV cameras had packed up and gone home. He describes a harrowing account of trying to get a young boy a life-saving medicine after he was diagnosed with diptheria. It is one of the most emotionally wrenching sequences in the film, boiling down all the suffering to one little boy. That is how we are more able to connect with disasters; not in the sheer volume of those affected, because it is overwhelming, but in the eyes of a desperate father and a sick little boy.

Most people have probably made up their minds about Penn even before seeing this, and that may prevent you from seeing the documentary, which would be a shame because while Penn is certainly the draw, it is not just about him, and that’s just how he wants it. He uses the documentary the same way he uses his celebrity to call attention to issues he’s passionate about and raise fund to help combat them. Penn strikes me as a man who doesn’t tolerate bullshit at all; it seems to me that the world could use more people like him.

If, like me, you are motivated to donate to Penn’s organization to help with the ongoing humanitarian efforts for the island (which is now battling COVID just like the rest of us), do yourself a favor and go to the CORE website. Every dollar donated will help save lives. You can go to the website here.

REASONS TO SEE: Portrays the scope of the issues in Haiti effectively. Moves the focus away from Penn in the second half of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much an acquired taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 2010 earthquake left 230,000 dead and more than 1.5 million homeless.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cajun Navy
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mortal Kombat

We Are the Radical Monarchs


The youth speak truth to power.

(2019) Documentary (PBS/POV/LadylikeAnayvette Martinez, Marilyn Hollinquest, Isa Noyola, Indelisa Carrillo, Laticia Erving, Rene Quinonez, De’Yani, Diana Martinez, Cheryl Dawson, Dulce Gareta, Stacey Milbank, Eduardo Garcia, Lupita Martinez, Alicia Garza. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton

 

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a hotbed of progressive ideas and thought, a region whose watchwords are “tolerance” and “acceptance.” When community organizer Anayvette Martinez’s daughter Lupita expressed interest in joining the Girl Scouts, Anayvette had reservations. She was concerned that her daughter was growing up in a world in which girls of color were marginalized and made to feel inadequate. Standards of beauty and success were (and are) almost all oriented towards the viewpoints of European descendants.

She wanted her daughter not to be an outsider, but at the very center of the organization, but she was certain that could never happen in the Scouts. So she and her close friend Marilyn Hollinquest – who like Anayvette is a single mom who identifies as lesbian – decided to form an organization in which young girls of color were shown that they were just as important, just as worthwhile as any other person. Thus, the Radical Brownies were formed.

The group eventually changed their name to Radical Monarchs (although not explicitly mentioned in the film, I would imagine that the GSA had some concerns with the group using the name “Brownies”) which is more meaningful; like the butterfly which is in their logo, the Radical Monarchs promote the beauty of color and symbolize the butterfly emerging from its cocoon.

The film follows the first Radical Monarchs troop from 2015 through 2018, documenting the formation of a second Bay Area troop and the financial challenges faced by both young mothers as they balance the needs of the organization with the needs of their full-time jobs and of course the needs of their children as well. If ever the term “supermom” was deserved, these two ladies deserve it.

The girls are taught the joys of activism and their meetings are almost like school classes in which various social subjects are taught, from the need for Black Lives Matter to body image to social justice. And yes, the girls get badges for completing the work in each module. The founders mention the inspiration of groups like the Black Panthers, the Brown Panthers and other radical groups (the uniforms of the girls include a brown beret and vest that is reminiscent of 60s radical chic) which of course will no doubt set alarm bells ringing among more conservative viewers.

Still, the young girls are very well-spoken and thoughtful. I don’t get the sense that they’re merely parroting the concepts that the troop leaders are trying to teach; one gets the impression that these girls have given it some thought and have brought their own life experiences into their way of thinking, as brief as those lives have been to that point. The girls are even brought in to address the Oakland city council regarding a bill that would protect renters and while it has a bit of the school project to it, the sincerity of the girls is nonetheless heart-warming.

In fact, Fox News has done some pieces on the group and no less a talking head than Sean Hannity professes that the youngsters are being “indoctrinated” which, for those looking for a lesson in semantics, should note that when a parent teaches their children the values of evangelical Christianity, the Second Amendment rights and conservative economic philosophy, that’s instilling their children with values. When a parent teaches their children the values of social justice, tolerance for those different than themselves and the importance of activism, it’s indoctrination. Words are important, aren’t they.

Several times during the film the founders remark that they have been swamped with requests to start troops all over  the country, but they don’t have the financial viability to do it yet (although they have since received a grant that will keep the group going at least through the end of 2020).

Knowlton seems to be overly-fawning at times and while at one point one of the young girls talks about whether white girls would be made welcome in the group, while it’s never explicitly said one way or the other there is a strong sense that they wouldn’t be, which seems to perpetuate a culture of exclusion and an us vs. them mentality. I get that groups like this are desperately needed for young girls of color to find an opportunity to develop, and bond with other girls and that there are plenty of similar groups that white girls are welcome to join. But the tough question that’s never asked is how do we ever learn tolerance of other views when we aren’t exposed to them? How do we learn to be inclusive of others if we’re going to keep our children segregated? I don’t know that is the intention of the leaders of the Radical Monarchs to create a divide but it’s a question that deserves to at least be addressed, and it simply isn’t.

Still, this is an inspiring group of young ladies who seem well-poised to be the activists and leaders of tomorrow. If you think that those protesting social injustice now are just going to go away, you may find it troubling (or comforting) to know that the next generation is already learning the ropes. The struggle continues, and will continue until girls like this get the respect, opportunity and equality that they deserve. That we all deserve.

The film is streaming on the PBS website for their documentary series POV up through August 19, 2020. You can click on the link below to view the film. Check with your local listings to see if the film will be broadcast again on your local PBS station.

REASONS TO SEE: Inspiring watching young girls of color being taught to stand up for themselves.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the topics discussed here are on the adult side, although the troop leaders discuss them with their young charges in a mature and safe manner.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Radical Monarchs were founded in December 2014 as an alternative to the Girl Scouts, with an emphasis on subjects of interest to the Black and Latinx communities.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: POV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Beautiful
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom