This past week “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” has made international headlines and will be remembered as one of the year’s most talked about films. The film follows Kazakh reporter Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) as they adventure through America. While Cohen and Bakalova are in character, they interact with real people. Instead of a premeditated plot, the film is a collection of earnest reactions from their encounters. Among other things, there seems to be a national debate over whether this film’s satire is impressively poignant or childishly offensive. This debate has followed Sacha Baron Cohen for about two decades now, and, as a politically aware comic writer and improviser, I have been following it very closely. While his work may be offensive in the present, Sacha Baron Cohen will go down as one of the greatest comedians of our time.
To understand the discrepancy between Cohen’s intentions and how people perceive him, it is first important to understand what comedic literacy is. I use the term comedic literacy as a person’s ability to use subtext and background knowledge to infer the explicit and implicit meaning of a joke. The world’s collective comedic literacy rises as we evolve, and jokes are able to become more nuanced. For example, when Mark Twain first published “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” it was widely misunderstood: People found the dialogue crude and the characters unlikeable. Today, however, comedic literacy has risen. People are better able to recognize the book as a satire, and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is now widely recognized as one of the greatest novels of all time.
Cohen’s biggest supporters argue that Cohen is a historically great comedian because he does his comedy for a higher purpose. His techniques succeed in creating tangible political change. For example, President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Guiliani’s reputation was deeply hurt by his inappropriate behavior in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” This is not the first time Cohen’s humor has had a deep political ripple effect. In 2018, Cohen had a TV Show “Who is America?” where he played several characters including a terrorist-defense-training specialist. During a staged training session with lawmaker Jason Spencer, Cohen’s character convinced Spencer to participate in many damning activities, including screaming the N-word. After the episode aired, Spencer was forced to step down. Most comedians’ priority is making people laugh, but Cohen’s main intention is to expose toxic political figures and strip them of their power.
Comedians, especially those who brand themselves as “edgy,” have a long history of disguising bigotry as humor. Jokes that are defined as “edgy” are scientifically proven to be more emotionally damaging and less funny, than jokes that aren’t. At first, Cohen’s humor comes off as just that: off-color, crass, and offensive. For example, his character in the Borat franchise is an anti-Semetic, sexist, ableist foreigner. A majority of punchlines in the film come from bigoted jokes, such as when Borat explains that women shouldn’t drive by saying, “Only man and bears are allowed inside cars.” Comments like this aren’t only discouraging to women, but perpetuate the deep-seated stereotype that all foreigners are tasteless, ignorant, and uneducated. As xenophobia runs rampant in President Trump’s America, characterizations like this can be especially harmful if people don’t understand the bigger picture of the joke.
Here is where the poignancy is often lost in Cohen’s films: Cohen is intentionally drawing from false American stereotyping to push the boundaries of what people will believe. The satire of the film is not how Borat acts but how real people react to his antics. In one scene of the film, Borat goes to a March For Our Rights rally where he encourages behavior like injecting Obama and Fauci with “the Wuhan Flu.” The audience cheers loudly and some members even Nazi-salute the character. While many audience members may just laugh along at the ridiculous lyrics of the song, Cohen intends the atrocious reactions to be the highlight of the scene. In this sense, there is a gaping disparity between Cohen’s intentions and some audience’s interpretations.
Overall, Sacha Baron Cohen’s humor requires an amount of comedic literacy that a small portion of the public possesses, as evidenced by the wake of outrage the film has left. So if “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is smashing box offices, but only a small portion of people are getting the joke, where does that leave us? Unfortunately, it means this film stands for bigotry because that’s what it’s perpetrating. In perhaps the saddest story surrounding Cohen’s newest film, Borat goes into a synagogue dressed as an offensive Jewish caricature. In real life, Sacha Baron Cohen is proudly Jewish. He speaks fluent Hebrew and works with the anti-defamation league “Stop Hate For Profit.” He chooses to play this character to expose internalized anti-Semitism in others, not because of his own prejudices. In this movie scene, however, Borat meets a Jewish woman who reveals herself to be a Holocaust survivor. This woman, Judith Dim Evans, soothes Borat and explains to him that Jewish people are kind and worthy of respect. Her kindness is truly touching. Unfortunately, when Evans learned that Borat was just a comedic character and not a real person, she was outraged. She believed the film to be bigoted, anti-Semitic slander—even though Cohen’s intention was just the opposite. Evans tragically passed and her estate sued the film. She died not being in on the joke.
“Borat Subsequent Movie Film” simultaneously has the best intentions of any 2020 comedy, but it falls short because not enough people are in on the joke. The majority of Borat’s audience is not comedically literate enough to step away from the cheap bigotry and tokenization to see the big picture: Sacha Baron Cohen’s character holds a mirror to our own internalized bigotry. It is truly a film ahead of its time, and hopefully more people will understand the comedy better as time progresses. For now though, despite good intentions, Cohen’s newest film seems to elicit offense more than appreciation.
Art by Yui Kita for the UC San Diego Guardian