Thursday, August 22, 2013

Playing Politics: Benedict Cumberbatch and the Actor’s Role in Political Debate

Do an actor’s political concerns warrant media publicity? More important, do an actor’s comments have an impact on the way the public thinks—or the government reacts?

In the past few days, photos surfaced from the Sherlock set showing Benedict Cumberbatch holding up signs to the paparazzi. That alone is an interesting act that seems to have burgeoned into both an effective way to get information to the global media and to “interact” with the media without talking with them (and increasing the possibility of being misquoted or badgered into saying more than Cumberbatch intended). A Wales Online article first reported the actor, head down, in a dark hoodie and shades, holding a white sheet of paper with a political message in front of his face. The photo wasn’t the focus of the article about Sherlock’s latest filming around Cardiff; in fact, the headline emphasized a new cast addition and featured several upbeat photos of Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington. Nevertheless, as you might expect, media quickly picked up on the Cumberbatch photo and the message clutched in his hand: “Go photograph Egypt and show the world something important.”

Within four days, approximately 50 news outlets around the world had republished the photo and commentary, and websites had received thousands of hits each. Some comments regarding the photo were positive, praising Cumberbatch for wanting to focus on an increasingly volatile situation in Egypt and underscoring why he is many fans’ favorite celebrity and justifiably the “thinking woman’s crumpet.”

An Esquire blog on August 19 summarized the potential of using celebrity for political awareness. Lt. Col. Robert Bateman wrote about Cumberbatch’s Egypt sign: “Yes, it is a futile gesture. Holding up a sign? . . . But, what if ALL celebrities started doing this? . . . What if all of the stars, hounded by the dogs of photography, started blocking their image and holding up signs about what is really important in the news? . . . There is no shortage of topics that matter more. And I suspect, being humans before they were celebrities, some of those [actors mentioned in this blog] might agree, regardless of their PR apparatus. . . . That would renew my faith in the nation that I defend--if her stars, her glitterati and her icons set the people of Egypt before themselves. But perhaps, maybe, possibly, those public figures that make their living by being public, can earn their acclaim by doing something that is right. Redirect social attention to places and people that need this attention.”

Others, however, raised questions about the propriety of an actor (in this case, Cumberbatch, who has been the focus of media criticism for his words in the past) stating his politics, especially when such a famous man knows that the paparazzi waiting for him to emerge from his trailer will photograph his every move once he stepped outside. On August 19, Now Daily asked, “What gives Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch the right to take the moral high ground?” The article questioned why Cumberbatch should trivialize the photographers’ jobs and added “one could argue that his job isn't exactly doing much to change the world either.”

Both writers note that one man’s—even sought-after Benedict Cumberbatch’s—words or the rather passive action of holding up a sign may not change anything. However, Cumberbatch’s recent “sign posts” are far more than most of us do, whether we are celebrities or actors or people seeing the photos online. Cumberbatch occasionally explains during interviews that he admires the careers of Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Perhaps part of that admiration and desire to emulate their success and film-making power is also respect for these stars’ political actions, whether overseas (e.g., Darfur) or at home (e.g., post-Katrina New Orleans). Even Clooney’s direct action of smuggling cameras into refugee camps in an effort to show the world what’s really going on in Darfur failed to generate the public outcry or intervention the actor had hoped for. (See a 2010 article for more Clooney comments about his “greatest failure.”) Pitt’s innovative, affordable housing development has not had quite the impact on residents that he (and some vocal residents with whom I’ve spoken) envisioned. (See a 2013 article for more information about the New Orleans homes.) Nevertheless, actors—no more, no less than anyone else—have the freedom-of-speech right and moral obligation to stand up for causes in which they believe. They may be no more successful than any of us non-celebs, but they surely will get more publicity for their political activism.

After the initial success of the Egypt note, Cumberbatch followed up with a four-page note concerning a political issue closer to (geographically, his) home. On August 21, Metro published a photo of Cumberbatch, dressed in Sherlock’s trademark form-fitting suit and his own shades as he prepared to film more scenes. He stood out in the open, holding up a page at a time and, in the Metro photo, almost seems to be smirking in the sun as the media photograph his message. It is a very different look from the presentation of the Egypt sign. This time, too, the media—such as the Metro article—focused solely on Cumberbatch’s political statements and his “silent protest” against the government’s decision to detain the partner of a Guardian journalist under anti-terror laws. The four pages illustrated “Questions we have a right to ask in a democracy – [David] Cameron, Theresa May, GCHQ, teachers, parents, each other . . . Hard drives smashed, journalists detained at airports. Democracy? Schedule 7 Prior restraint – is this erosion of civil liberties winning the war on terror? What do they not want you to know? And how did they get to know it? Does the exposure of their techniques cause a threat to our security or does it just cause them embarrassment?”

Whereas video from Egypt has been on most global television news for weeks and Cumberbatch’s fans were at least somewhat aware of what is going on (or at least being reported) in that country, they collectively may not have been as aware of David Miranda’s detention without arrest over the weekend. Now they are more likely to follow this news story and its political implications.

Again, the signs ask questions without Cumberbatch positing any answers, but the tone and phrasing of the questions indicate the actor’s political disquiet about the journalist’s detention and surrender of personal property. Cumberbatch would hardly put himself in an increasingly prominent media position to state a political message if he didn’t believe in what he is doing.

Given the intense interest in his first message, Cumberbatch expanded his delivery style and message content for the next political photo op. This isn’t a criticism—it is merely an observation that Cumberbatch now understands exactly how much media attention his political views will garner and chose to use the same forum to further ask thought-provoking, perhaps action-promoting questions. It will be interesting to see where, publicly politically, he goes from here.

A very cynical interpretation is that the escalation of printed messages has garnered Mr. Cumberbatch more publicity even during a month when his name is seldom out of the media for a day. Furthermore, it has won over, I suspect, the majority of his fans who have a new reason for adoring him. It further establishes him as a “thinker” aware of world issues. Shortly before the first of three films in which he has a role premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival—with the Cumberbatch-starring “WikiLeaks movie” The Fifth Estate having the honor as the gala opening film on September 5—such alignment between actor and political awareness, especially when the topic concerns journalists tangentially linked with an information “leaker,” can possibly be used to help promote the film. It certainly gives TIFF’s journalists more to ask during press conferences with the actor.

However, waving aside cynicism or pragmatism about the effect Cumberbatch’s printed words will have on his career or the promotion of a film, I think that the actor’s recent time-saving method of discourse works. His message is succinct and not easily misquoted. It gets just as much international attention as his spoken words, with far fewer potentially negative consequences for the actor. (Once he committed to holding up those signs, he put himself out there for critical evaluation by the media, public, and huge fanbase.) We have a pretty good idea what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks about the paparazzi waiting outside his door or flocking to Sherlock filming locations. We can’t know the depth of Cumberbatch’s concern about Egypt, Schedule 7, or David Miranda because even a four-page note large enough for the media to photograph doesn’t allow details, analysis, or answers. We can infer that, after so much publicity about the Egypt comment, Cumberbatch is savvy enough to use his celebrity to bring up something timely and provocative.

Most important, though--he made us think, forcing our attention to his Sharpie-scrawled words. Fans who weren’t aware of these political issues might at least learn more about them. Perhaps education of the fan-masses is a valuable outcome of a favorite actor’s politics, however effective or ineffective Cumberbatch’s recent flurry of messages may be in getting politicians, much less nations, to change course. Cumberbatch may have reached in particular young Sherlock fans who avidly follow him, and their awareness of recent political developments may have more of a long-term personal impact than the Esquire or Now Daily writers, anyone who questions an actor’s political clout, or even Cumberbatch himself can imagine.

Oddly enough, when the actor is mute and relying on written messages, he has the loudest voice of all.


  1. Nicely done.

    My take, as an unrepentant Cumberbitch, is that the first time he was just irritated and telling the paps to make better use of their time than plastering his picture all over the place. But then he saw the reaction and the outrageous, repressive, frightening actions against freedom of the press made his second "IM" almost ineluctable.

    But I think he also sent another message: they can try and silence everyone, but we have other ways to get the word around. We have one another. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. I don't think there is ever anything futile about one person standing up. Every vast majority is made up of unique persons. If we only start to care, to speak, to educate ourselves, tyranny cannot prevail.

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