When Sacha Baron Cohen made his first film 14 years ago playing the character Borat, an unselfconsciously racist and misogynistic bumbling journalist from Kazakhstan, one could argue that his satire was tasteless and crude but had some redeeming qualities in its ability to shock. Who can forget Borat’s rendition of “Throw the Jew Down the Well” sung to an enthusiastic and supportive crowd in a bar in Tucson, Arizona, or the running of the Jew, a scene inspired by the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, with Mr. and Mrs. Jew taking the place of bulls? It was difficult not to gape.
Trump and Baron Cohen are two sides of the same coin. Both have become famous for their ability to tear people down in humiliating ways. One does it for political gain, the other for entertainment.
In the recently released sequel, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” Baron Cohen uses the same techniques of grotesque humor to reveal the horrible behavior of unwitting subjects, but there is no longer the same shock value. In fact, in the same way that Borat the character is now recognizable by Americans, forcing him to adopt disguises to make himself anonymous in order to pull off his “gotcha” moments on film, so, too, are the values he espouses — only these are expressed openly without any attempt at concealment.
In the Age of Trump this is to be expected. The widespread expression of hatred emanating from the top has normalized it, giving everyday people permission for its casual expression. It can be argued that Trump and Baron Cohen are two sides of the same coin. Both have become famous for their ability to tear people down in humiliating ways. One does it for political gain, the other for entertainment.
To be fair, it wasn’t Baron Cohen’s intention to be a member of Team Trump. Borat is a character rooted in satire whose motive is to expose actual bigots by holding up their behaviour to ridicule through comedy. Trump, perhaps because he’s a target of that ridicule, doesn’t find him funny, recently referring to Baron Cohen as a “creep.” Baron Cohen responded: “I don’t find you funny either. But yet the whole world laughs at you. I’m always looking for people to play racist buffoons and you’ll need a job after Jan. 20. Let’s talk!”
While Baron Cohen might truly want to be a force for good in revealing racism, anti-Semitism, zenophobia and other hatreds, his techniques only encourage our base human instincts of pointing and laughing as part of a likeminded mob. These are precisely the kind of emotions and passions Trump excites in his followers, and while Baron Cohen’s targets might be more despicable, that doesn’t make our joining in the mockery much better. In reality, his comedy allows us to engage in nonlethal savagery while pretending we’re enlightened.
The plot line of his newest film is predictably lewd and improbable: Borat and his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar, travel to America with the goal of making a goodwill gesture on behalf of the Kazakh government by presenting Tutar as a gift to Vice President Mike Pence. Along the way they have encounters — mostly in the South — with conservatives who don’t bat an eyelash at Borat’s repugnant statements about women, incest, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, to name just a few.
That allows the audience to feel smugly superior by taking glee in their shameful views. And by egging his subjects on in their bigotry, Baron Cohen reinforces dangerous stereotypes, even if unintentionally. Clearly Baron Cohen himself is not endorsing these prejudices, but by having Borat present them so casually he runs the risk of providing the bigots with more grist for their mill.
In one scene, for example, Borat enters a synagogue to talk to two Holocaust survivors, though he himself is a Holocaust denier. He decides to disguise himself as a member of the Jewish community to gain entry — so he wears a costume made up of Jewish stereotypes: fangs, a Pinocchio nose and a bag of money.
His purpose is to discredit the survivors, but through kindness and gentleness, they persuade him that the Holocaust actually did happen because they witnessed it and endured it. Theoretically the scene has the power to be redemptive, but Borat doesn’t demonstrate that he’s been enlightened, so the scene falls flat even as his odious depiction of Jews looms large on the screen. It’s just another tasteless punchline.
And then there’s the risk that his audience doesn’t even understand that they’re supposed to be in on the joke. At a time of rising hatreds (anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-Asian sentiment are among those on the rise), the film’s many young viewers may not follow its nuances. It’s quite conceivable that they may go to Halloween parties as the Jew in “Borat” 2, complete with a fake nose, fangs and a money bag, or as Tutar, either in her feral or glamorous incarnation.
The Borat sequel is the wrong movie for a time when the line between satire and reality has already been erased, and the film’s theatrics only contribute to making our reality worse — encouraging more mockery, scorn and hatred for our neighbors. The inmates have taken over the asylum and insanity rules. Sacha Baron Cohen shouldn’t be enabling them.