For as long as there has been celebrity activism, there has been scrutiny and suspicion over its motives. They’re just doing it for attention, they’re millionaires who want to feel better about themselves, they’re trying to improve their brand—we’ve heard it all before. Russell Brand’s image has seen several iterations over the years, from drug-addicted playboy to Katy Perry’s plus-one, but it’s possible he’s never been as controversial than in his latest incarnation as a mouthpiece for progressive politics.
It takes almost the entire runtime of his documentary The Emperor’s New Clothes, but Brand eventually makes vague reference to his own wealth, which at a net worth of $15 million is not insignificant. Usually this is the crux of criticism against people like Brand, that they want to cash in on the cultural cachet of progressive politics, while at the same time hoarding their own privilege.
But there’s always a reason not to speak about the issues of income inequality, wealth distribution, corporate tax evasion, and media collusion. Given the choice between silent deference and potentially inappropriate attempts at activism, I don't mind some ruffled feathers. And really, who is to say Brand, as a self-made millionaire from a working-class background, is any less objective—or any more compromised—than the usual documentary crews?
Even giving Brand the benefit of the doubt with regards to his personal intentions, there is still the question of what this documentary intends to achieve and who it intends to reach. Brand favors a strategy of peaceful protest and collective action, and the film even ends with a triumph for protesting tenants over Westbrook Partners, an equity firm that planned to raise rents to unlivable prices after a renovation. But while Brand’s actions and words in the film suggest a belief in direct action, the documentary comes across as flailingly indirect.
Director Michael Winterbottom cuts between footage of Brand speaking directly to the camera, interviews with economists and experts on evasive business practices, politicians delivering speeches both in full and post-processed, and Brand out and about on the streets, sometimes half-provoking bankers on their way to work, or half-protesting alongside those whose investment in these issues favors the practical over the theoretical.
But if it’s hard to condemn Brand for trying, it’s just as hard to praise him for his effort. Perhaps this film will be the impetus that causes someone to leave their home and join a picket line or an activist group, but the nature of Winterbottom and Brand’s film is disjointed, not impactful.
I don’t doubt that what Brand feels is genuine frustration in The Emperor’s New Clothes, and many of the topics Brand and Winterbottom choose to explore are infuriating, from the wage gap between workers and their CEOs to the offshore holdings of politicians who claim to be acting on behalf of the people. But the structure of the film, as bouncy as Brand is himself, doesn’t generate much more than curiosity. This is activism as oddity, and while that’s not worthless the way some might claim, it’s also not exactly inspiring.
The most interesting parts of The Emperor’s New Clothes come in its quietest moments, as we watch Brand interact with the people of his hometown and citizens of Britain whose voices are usually marginalized. Brand is a polarizing presence for some, but credit where credit is due: it is still exceedingly rare in documentary cinema to see someone from a working-class background in dialogue with someone they perceive to be one of their own. The subjects of this film feel comfortable with Brand. He is the kind of man who will give you a hug and a kiss in the middle of the street after being reminded of a shared history. If that kind of warmth is only performative or for the sake of the camera, Brand and the people he’s listening to don’t seem to mind.
In his hometown of Essex, Brand is not an outsider, but a hometown boy made good, and the interactions that come from that dynamic are touching. If the only thing to come from Brand and Winterbottom’s efforts is that a couple people felt understood and appreciated and valued, well, there are worse reasons to make a film.