George Clooney: Shining the Spotlight into the Dark Places
From his breakthrough to stardom in NBC’s E.R. to his recent Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in Up in the Air, George Clooney has won numerous awards and accolades both in front of the camera and behind it. While fame and fortune often go to one’s head, in George Clooney’s case, it went to his heart. The spotlight has been shining on Clooney for years in his many roles as actor, director, screenwriter and producer, but his mission is to use his fame to turn the spotlight toward the people who need it most. Though he has played a gangster, an escaped convict, and a divorce attorney, his real life role is spokesman for the victims of some of the world’s worst disasters and atrocities.
Clooney was one of the most influential and involved organizers in three major telethons for world disasters. The first, ten days after September 11, 2001 was America: A Tribute to Heroes, which raised more than $100 million dollars to provide immediate support for the victims and families of 9/11. Three and a half years later, Clooney was once again a major player for Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope telethon for survivors of the Asian tsunami, which aired on January 15, 2005. It raised $18.3 million dollars for the Red Cross, had Clooney himself answering phones and taking pledges. Clooney once again took his role as one of the lead organizers in a telethon for the victims of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. He organized an amazing number of musicians, film and movie stars to perform, as well as about 140 actors, athletes, and other volunteers to simply answer phones for the telethon that aired on January 22, 2010. Forgoing the Critics’ Choice Awards to prepare for the telethon for Haiti, Clooney asked people to “participate, help out in whatever way you can… it can be five bucks…whatever way you can, but be involved. It’s a big world out there and we all have a lot of responsibility to look out for people who can’t look out for themselves.”
Clooney has joined forces with and generously donated to numerous organizations including Bono’s ONE campaign against poverty, and United Way where he is on the Board of Trustees. Clooney donated $1 million to the United Way Hurricane Katrina Response Fund, which helped displaced people and provided long-term recovery to those devastated in 2005’s costliest natural disaster. He even used his Smoke House Production Company as the venue for Ocean’s Thirteen premiere and private after-party for an auction to raise money for Realizing the Dream—an organization whose mission follows Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream to wipe out poverty and injustice. More recently, Clooney is joining other celebrities to start a campaign for flood relief in Pakistan.
Though he has no children of his own, Clooney has taken on the role of fathering by adopting some of the most important causes of the century to nurture and care for by bringing them into the public’s attention. Since 2006, Clooney’s activist work has centered on bringing the world’s attention to the atrocities in Darfur, Western Sudan where millions of African tribe people were killed, tortured, raped, and displaced by the government and its militia, Janjaweed.
Clooney spoke to the United Nations in 2006: “I am here to represent the voices of people who can not speak for themselves…In the time we are here today, more women and children will die violently in the Darfur region than in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel or Lebanon…My job is to come here to beg you on behalf of the millions of people who will die—and make no mistake, they will die—for you to take real and effective measures to put an end to this. Of course, it’s complex, but when you see entire villages raped and killed, wells poisoned and then filled with the bodies of its villagers, then all complexities disappear and it comes down to simply right and wrong.”
In a recent interview on Larry King Live, Clooney recalled his initial wake up call to the horrors in Darfur when he read New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof’s haunting articles about the genocide. He noticed that church group and activists were involved which was great, “but it wasn’t getting enough play. I’m the son of a newsman, so I know some stories get dumped. So, I said (to my dad) let’s go to Darfur—you be the newsman, I’ll be the celebrity. My job is to make it loud…I can’t get out of the spotlight no matter what I do, and these people can’t get in the spotlight.”
Clooney’s father, journalist Nick Clooney accompanied him on his first trip to Darfur in 2006. They created a documentary called A Journey to Darfur, which was shown on television not only in America, but also in both the UK and France. They listened to and witnessed a humanitarian nightmare and brought it into people’s living rooms when they shined the spotlight on the mass killing and other crimes against humanity.
In 2007, Clooney was the executive producer for several documentaries including Sand and Sorrow, which details the origins and aftermath of the conflicts in Darfur. The opening words for the trailer are spoken with Clooney’s distinct voice: “Imagine the gods of history looking down on us all after our abysmal failures to protect millions of human lives from their own governments—failures of the first order. And imagine them saying to us, we’ll give you another chance, but this time, so as to be sure you get it right, we’ll do it in slow motion, and we’ll call it Darfur. More than 2 million non-Arabs hang onto a thread of life, forced from their land by a government who wants them gone.”
Clooney’s honors for his humanitarian work mean as much, if not more to him than his film awards. At the World Summit in Rome, Clooney and fellow actor Don Cheadle were selected to receive the 2007 Summit Peace Award by the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates for their work in Darfur. The UN named Clooney one of its Messengers of Peace in January 2008, the highest honor given by the Secretary-General. Clooney was named recipient as a prominent individual who donates his time and passion to raising awareness of the United Nations’ efforts to improve lives. This past summer, Clooney accepted the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the Emmy Awards, being recognized for his work to raise money for the Haitian earthquake victims as well as his role in bringing attention to the genocide in Darfur. Another memorable honor was bestowed upon him on his most recent trip to Sudan. The grandmother of a friend blessed Clooney. Aired on the Today Show, Clooney told viewers that he received one of her sacred blessings—she spits on both of your hands, then she pulls you down and spits on your head. He smiles and with his remarkable grace and humor added, “I hadn’t been blessed like that before…or they didn’t call it a blessing when they did it!”
Clooney has traveled with influential and knowledgeable companions. In February 2009, Clooney made a trip to Chad with New York Times correspondent and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof (co-author with his wife Sheryl WuDunn of Half the Sky). Clooney has also traveled extensively alongside fellow actor Don Cheadle and activist John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group and the ENOUGH! Project to encourage many international governments to put pressure on the government of Sudan. He is currently on a mission to avert a civil war there.
Clooney and Cheadle joined with Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, David Pressman, and Jerry Weintraub to found Not On Our Watch, an aid and advocacy organization. The mission of Not On Our Watch “is to focus global attention and resources toward putting an end to mass atrocities around the world. Drawing upon the powerful voices of artists, activists and cultural leaders, Not On Our Watch generates lifesaving humanitarian assistance and protection for the vulnerable, marginalized, and displaced. We encourage governing bodies to take meaningful immediate action to protect those in harm’s way. Where governments remain complacent, Not On Our Watch is committed to stopping mass atrocities and giving voice to their victims.”
Just back from Sudan with Prendergast, Clooney and he have been in Washington D.C. meeting with President Obama, Congress members, as well as members on the Council of Foreign Relations. Their mission, once again, is to shine the spotlight—this time on the upcoming two votes to take place in January 2011, the first of which could free South Sudan to becoming independent. Clooney is hoping to avert a civil war by putting diplomatic pressure on the Sudanese government, providing protection for the civilians, ensuring consistent mediation for the sides, and appointing full-time diplomats for negotiating a peace treaty.
On his most recent trip, Clooney traveled once again to atrocity-stricken areas of southern Sudan, including Abyei, an oil-rich area of disputed land. When Today’s Show Ann Curry, who spent the week traveling with Clooney asked, “Why this place, this issue?” Clooney responded, “What are you going to say to the next generation—that we stood by and did nothing?” When Curry asked Clooney whether he believed this (potentially imminent) war could actually be stopped, Clooney replied, “It can…if we get involved now.” Clooney and many others believe that this pending disaster is preventable. He continues with Curry, “if I said to you right now there is going to be an earthquake—that 200,000 people are going to be killed, what would you do? Well, this isn’t a natural disaster, this is manmade—it can be stopped.
Prendergast joined Clooney in a recent interview on Larry King Live where they were asked if it really helps for an actor or a celebrity to use their fame to call attention to the world’s crises. Prendergast responded, “It has an impact. We’re grateful that people like George go there, spend time there, and how much attention is garnered.” Prendergast said that even with fifteen years of dedicated activism under his belt, the media attention from shows like Larry King Live and the Today Show could only be generated from Clooney’s fame. Clooney responded graciously, putting his call to arms above all else, by saying, “I get much more attention than I need and deserve. I help shine a light in an area that needs it and deserves it.”
Clooney brings that light and hope to the people of Sudan themselves. Sudanese Peace Activist, Dr. Awadiya Yahia says “I really give credit to George Clooney, to go to a place like Sudan which is extremely dangerous—for his courage and determination. His work has brought worldwide attention to the terrible situation in my home country; he has been these people’s voice, for their concerns, needs and problems. A lot of people might have a great deal to say on this subject, but someone as influential as George Clooney can really be heard. The highly difficult efforts he has made and continues to make are deeply appreciated by the people of Sudan.”
Clooney’s message is clear: participate, join in, be a part of the world family helping your fellow human beings in any way that you can—every act of kindness, great or small, helps.
We all have a voice. OK, so maybe it isn’t as sultry as George Clooney’s (we can’t all win the People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive contest in both 1997 and 2006!), but your voice matters. Clooney is encouraging readers to help the innocent victims of Darfur who need your voice by going to a website: sudanactionnow.org.