We think we want humor to be safe, as we want most things in life to be safe. But good humor can sometimes cut. The point is to make us uncomfortable, to make us wonder—in that space of floating time right after we blurt out a laugh—if Funny Person X, whoever that might be, has gone too far this time, has crossed the threshold into terrible taste or, worse, cruelty. Thinking too much about how and whether a joke works is a good way to knead it into right into oblivion. But sometimes, asking after the fact, “Why did I laugh at that?” is the best way to take our own temperature in the here and now, maybe even to see what needs to change in ourselves or the world around us.
I laughed and laughed through every joke of questionable taste and possible rudeness in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. And then I laughed some more. Some of this was bitter laughter at the way our intrepid Kazakhstan reporter Borat Sagdiyev—an alter-ego of Sacha Baron Cohen, returning, after 14 years, with a sequel to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan—reveals ugly and unruly truths about contemporary American culture. Some was mildly shameful laughter, as I thought of Michelle Obama’s entreaty to go high when others go low: was I going too low by laughing at Cohen’s undercover skewering of fervent QAnon believers, racist alt-righters, moneyed white Southerners enjoying a debutante ball and, last but surely not least, a lascivious Rudy Giuliani? Other times I laughed simply because I was awestruck. A fertility dance executed during a female character’s time of the “moon blood,” as Borat puts it? There is no sequence like this anywhere else on film—the only thing I can think of that comes close in its audaciousness is the tampon teabag in Catherine Breillat’s 2004 Anatomy of Hell. I laughed til I wept.
The 2006 Borat: Cultural Learnings made Cohen—an English-born, Cambridge-educated actor and satirist who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the American Civil Rights Movement—a very famous man. It also caused many to question his techniques. Posing as a hapless yet overconfident reporter from an aggressively underdeveloped country (the nation of Kazakhstan could hardly have been happy about that), Cohen’s Borat, a kind of naïf-bully in an ill-fitting gray suit and cheap loafers, had gained access to his subjects through rather dubious means. By making them think they’d be appearing in a documentary, Cohen lured both regular Americans (many, but not all, from the South or the Midwest) and powerful ones (like former Congressman Bob Barr, of Georgia) into his snare. As Borat, he’d earn his subjects’ confidence and get them to agree with his homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic or otherwise bigoted rhetoric. He exposed Americans at their worst, even beneath their friendly veneer. But even if many of Cohen’s subjects deserved what they got, there were streaks of cruelty in his approach. Some of the people he’d punked had been incredibly kind to him, opening their homes to the awkward, blundering journo from another land, even giving him advice on how to use toilet paper. The 2006 takeaway from Borat: Cultural Learnings was that Americans can be terrible—and yet, even so, sometimes generous.
In the time since, we Americans elected a charismatic, principled statesman as president, twice; he also happened to be the country’s first Black president, breaking a barrier that, some thought, would be the beginning of the end of racism in America. We followed up that eight-year streak by electing a down-at-the-heels television star who’d bamboozled the public into thinking he was a successful billionaire, a man who has failed to denounce white supremacists, instituted policies that put children in cages, used his office to run roughshod over the rule of law, and caused through his negligence and disregard for science the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. Somehow, in 2020, Cohen-as-Borat’s approach—of going out into the world and teasing out threads of bigotry and hypocrisy in ordinary American citizens, as well as some not-so-ordinary ones—seems less cruel than it did in 2006. Which says more about us than it does about Cohen.
So, yes, I laughed, from the very beginning of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. (The film’s director—or perhaps ringleader is a better word—is Jason Woliner.) Borat kicks off the film by explaining, in voiceover, his post-2006 fate: Because he failed in his mission to make benefit once glorious nation of Kazakhstan—a goal that, in retrospect, seems like a futuristic satirical blast at the MAGA slogan—he has spent the last 14 years sentenced to hard labor. But the country’s premier, upset that he’s been left out of the Big Boys’ club of Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un, Bolsonaro, et al, frees Borat so he can send him on a special mission: to earn the American president’s respect, Borat will deliver a special gift to Vice President Mike Pence. Spoiler: It’s a monkey. Borat, happy to be freed from the gulag, spruces himself up, packs his best tighty-whiteys and heads back to America. But an accident occurs en route: the special gift monkey, who’d been shipped in his own deluxe crate, is DOA. And inside the crate there is also a stowaway: Borat’s 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (played by a marvelous newcomer, Maria Bakalova), a near-feral child who idolizes the woman she calls Princess Melania. Tutar longs to be, like Melania, a princess in a golden cage—which is not such a big dream, considering the movie’s running gag concerning the Kazakhstan Ministry of Agriculture and Wildlife’s recommendation that women be kept in cages most of the time.
Tutar has been nothing but a disappointment to Borat—back home, he’d berated her, calling her “the oldest unmarried woman in Kazakhstan.” But knowing he’ll be executed if he returns home having failed in his mission, he decides to groom Tutar as a gift to Pence. And as it turns out, she is a much better present than a monkey: Tutar becomes a babe, a manufactured bombshell with harsh blond hair and smoky black eye makeup. Borat takes her shopping, asking the saleswoman to direct them to the “No means yes” section. He escorts her to an old-fashioned southern cotillion, to learn how young women should be properly presented to society. (It is here that the aforementioned fertility dance takes place—consider this a warning.) Soon thereafter, he learns that Pence will be speaking nearby. Dressed as the man he calls McDonald Trump, with requisite fat suit, he sneaks into the Conservative Political Action Conference with his daughter slung over his shoulder, jubilantly announcing his intentions: “Michael Pen-is! I brought the girl for you!”
For this scene, Cohen really did interrupt Pence’s remarks at CPAC in National Harbor, Maryland, this past February. (The “woman” slung over his shoulder was in reality a life-size doll, and he was escorted from the venue by security.) In real life, as in the movies, Borat is too famous to walk around in his trademark gray suit, so in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, he dons an array of disguises: dressed in farmer’s overalls and a shaggy fake beard, he shows up at an alt-right rally. (Again, this was a real-life rally, in Olympia, Washington, crashed by Cohen in June. It’s worth noting that much of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was shot during the pandemic, and although Borat is maskless through nearly all of it, the film’s credits do include a COVID-compliance officer.) From the stage, Borat leads the crowd in a song that advocates injecting “the Wuhan flu” into Barack Obama, Anthony Fauci, and anyone who wears a mask to prevent the spread of COVID. He ups the stakes in a subsequent chorus, getting the crowd to laugh and sing along as he advocates that journalists be chopped up, “like the Saudis do.” You could argue that Cohen is riling up the crowd under false pretenses. But if these pretenses are false, what would the proper ones be? This poison is already coursing through these ralliers’ veins; Cohen-as-Borat is just drawing it out.
There’s poison everywhere. Tutar, emboldened by the freedoms on offer to American women, reinvents herself as a television journalist and snags an interview with Rudy Giuliani—the real Rudy Giuliani—who by all appearances seems ready to succumb to her charms. She flirts with him conspicuously, yet also in a rather unschooled way. He laps at the bait, almost literally.
Cohen isn’t solely fixated on ugliness. Borat finds some American generosity too: Dressed as an exaggerated and clearly anti-Semitic idea of Jew—with pointed talons, devil wings and an elaborately crooked and elongated nose—he slips into a synagogue, where two women, despite his clearly wackadoodle appearance, greet him with warmth and kindness. One of these women, Judith Dim Evans, died as the movie was being completed, and Cohen honors her with a mention at the end of the credits. In just one staggering example of how easily Cohen’s intent can be misread—he himself is an observant Jew and an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers—Evans’ family, without having seen the film, has filed a lawsuit against him. They claim that Evans was tricked into participating in a documentary that mocks “the Holocaust and Jewish culture.”
Cohen must know from experience that he’s playing with fire. So why does he again stick his hand right in it, 14 years later? Now isn’t just the right time for a Borat sequel; it may be the only time. In 2006 Cohen’s skewering of Kazakhstan as an economically and socially backwards country seemed like a cheap shot. But now America is itself a country facing backwards, the kind of democratically challenged nation we used to look down upon with pity. That reality isn’t lost on Cohen, and it shouldn’t be lost on us, either. If Borat Subsequent Moviefilm makes you laugh, what does your laughter say about you? My laughter told me—reminded me—how angry I am. As 2020 rounds to a close, I have zero sympathy for white Americans who are happy to show kindness to a stranger—just as long as that stranger, too, is white. I have zero tolerance for a presidential lackey who’d do anything he could to derail an election. And I have zero use for racist thugs whose greatest fear is that their guns will be taken away from them. If Sacha Baron Cohen gets you singing along joyfully to a phony racist, anti-journalist, anti-science anthem, then the joke is on you. And it ought to be.
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