Emma Thompson and Celebrity Activism Done Right

Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson led a protest march on Saturday, November 25.

If you are anything like me, you just rolled your eyes. What was it about? The habitat of the banana slug? Equal pay for rich actresses? Kindergarten sex-ed? To my surprise, she and her fellow protesters were demanding something very respectable: the freedom of an innocent human being.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had a good life in England. She had attained British citizenship. She worked as a project manager with a charity called the Thomson Reuters Foundation. She shared a home with her British husband and baby girl. On March 17, 2016, Nazanin kissed her husband good-bye and took her 22-month-old daughter from London to Iran to visit her mom and dad for the Iranian New Year.

After a two-week visit with her parents, Nazanin and her daughter returned to the Imam Komeini Airport to fly home. That’s when it happened: Thugs from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard arrested Nazanin and confiscated her infant daughter’s British passport. After a coerced confession and a kangaroo court hearing, Nazanin was sentenced to five years in prison.

The reason for Nazanin’s arrest is still not clear. More than one year after her arrest, Iranian television reported that she was detained for her “involvement in post-election riots that engulfed Tehran and some other cities in 2009.” That sounds bad, until you find that her “involvement” consisted of working for a charity called BBC Media Action (before she left for Thomson Reuters), which trained journalists online. The Iranian government is pretending that her employment with the charity proves she is a spy who attempted a “soft overthrow” of the government.

The British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the government official ultimately responsible for negotiating Nazanin’s release, made matters worse on November 1 by mistakenly suggesting that Nazanin had been teaching journalism in Iran during her New Year’s visit—a contention that the Iranian prosecutor hadn’t even made. Nazanin’s family and supporters are now worried that Johnson’s slip will expose her to even more prison time.

In the wake of Johnson’s unfortunate comments, Emma Thompson used her celebrity to put pressure on two parties. First, she called out Johnson for his gaffe as well as for not doing enough to secure Nazanin’s release. Second, she and her comrades marched into the local Shiite mosque to dispatch a letter to the supreme leader of Iran demanding that Nazanin be let go.

Celebrity activism tends to annoy me because it’s often insincere self-promotion and its aims are usually too vague to be useful. Emma Thompson’s recent activism strikes me as innocent of both sins.

Because she had pneumonia during the event, Thompson couldn’t speak. But her mere presence generated an international news story, bringing Nazanin’s plight to the attention of millions of people for the first time. Thompson, therefore, did not simply piggyback on the latest cause célèbre to get a camera pointed at her. Rather, she used the paparazzi’s cameras to point at something far more important.

While there was undoubtedly some partisan rancor in her comments about Boris Johnson, Thompson at least had the decency to ask for something concrete and measurable that the British government could actually do to improve the situation.

In an age of celebrity virtue signaling, it’s refreshing to see a famous actress lend her notoriety to a specific, achievable cause in service of the ultimate minority: an individual. Many of us are sick of celebrity activism, but this case demonstrates why it isn’t always such a bad idea.

Image: YouTube/The Guardian

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