How Walking a Tightrope of Tone-Deafness Diminished ‘Borat 2’s’ Cultural Impact
Seemingly willfully forgotten along with the Trump’s presidency and the horrors of 2020, the sequel to Borat undoubtedly did not have the cultural impact of its predecessor. Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedic genius, human rights activist, skilled writer, and nuanced actor. Since his 2006 film, Borat, which took the world by storm, the multihyphenate’s bread and butter has been the intersection of cringe comedy and controversy, incorporating elements of the Theatre of the Absurd, particularly the vaudevillian funnyman. Baron Cohen’s politically incorrect brand of parody and shock humor aims to expose, to turn a mirror on the very aspects of society that he’s parodying.
This go around it was the far-right extremists who once lived in the shadows. Naturally, then, Baron Cohen’s opposition accuses him of the very things he is attempting to expose about American society – hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, stupidity, dangerous ignorance; the joke – the castigation – flies directly over their heads like a U.S. Navy Blue Angels stunt during an air show. So why didn’t Borat Subsequent Moviefilm leave as indelible of a mark as the first one, which deconstructed the worst aspects of American culture?
In his book, Absurd Drama, journalist Martin Esslin wrote:
“The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it.”
The first Borat accomplished exactly that, exposing political corruption, toxic religious fanaticism, and the disgusting underbelly of America. During the 14 years between that film and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Baron Cohen’s biting critique (itself, nothing groundbreaking) of our country has been repeated, refined, and hammered in the collective psyche of the American public by the media. We, as an audience, are well-aware of the problems facing our country, now more than ever. Alas, as such, productively, the film doesn’t unveil any enlightening revelations or spark any meaningful, uncomfortable conversations that will ultimately push our democracy in a morally just direction. We are not exposed to any revelatory realities of the human condition. Instead, however, we are urged to vote, which is a commendable and apt endorsement of Biden and Harris after 95 minutes of repeating the same, repetitive media talking points about the inadequacy of Trump, which viewers have read and listened to on the news over and over again for the past four years. But do we need an entire film about how awful Trump, his close circle, and his followers are? Did we discover anything new? Were we shocked “out of complacency?” No. If Baron Cohen did, in fact, influence and widen Biden’s seven million person lead in the popular vote with the release of this sequel, the impact, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction, would not even be quantifiable. This election was solidified years ago.
Do we need an entire film about how awful Trump, his close circle, and his followers are?
“Cobbled together in the midst of the pandemic and rushed out ahead of the presidential election, the new Borat plays like a prankish wakeup call to the lunacy he’s been pointing towards for ages. At a time when satire often feels too soft, this brilliant, vulgar plea for a better world cuts deep.”
First and foremost, Kohn’s article is not a review. It is studio pandering. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm isn’t an anthem for our society. It’s a rushed, mixed bag of redundant, unoriginal critiques of both those in power, as well as those that enable them. We are painfully aware of what the sequel satirizes. We’ve been living through it. Kohn appears to give much of the credit of our current situation to America’s ignoring of the “warning” that was Baron Cohen’s first Borat. Kohn also appears to think that voting one administration out of office will solve the “lunacy” (it will temporarily curb it, but only welcome it back in with a vengeance in the form of another presidency due to a fundamentally unaddressed division that has manifested for centuries. If Kohn is referring to the irreparable “lunacy” that is America…it’s been occurring for more than 400 years since the first slaves were brought here in 1619; we aren’t simply divided at home in our deep-rooted prejudice. Our government commits genocide abroad in the name of cultural hegemony every day. Voting one party out of office for the past 244 years has done nothing but postpone our country’s sickness. So no, there is no plea in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm for a better world. For that matter, the two aspects that are actuallyvulgar in the film (for Baron Cohen’s standards) are the treatment of the unwitting babysitter and Holocaust survivor.
Baron Cohen was sued by the estate of Judith Dim Evans, the Holocaust survivor with whom he met in the synagogue scene during the film (who has since passed), for his mocking appearance inside the synagogue. After Borat falsely finds out the Holocaust didn’t happen, he wants to kill himself, so he frequents the nearest synagogue in order to wait for the next mass shooter to kill him and other unassuming worshippers. He feels he needs to disguise himself as a Jew to blend in. As such, he wears a Trilby Hat-esque hat commonly seen in the Yeshivish, Lubavitch, and Hasidic communities of New York, fake curled payot, a Pinocchio-like, elongated prosthetic nose, a bag of money, and a vampire costume (a notoriously offensive comparison). There, he meets Dim Evans, and horror ensues.
Obviously, Baron Cohen is not anti-Semitic, a main critique of the far-right – his goal was to shed light on the senseless Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018 and the prevalence of gun violence in America – however, this point could have been made in a way that didn’t demean a human being who has already seen the deepest depths of depravity of humankind. From a Theatre of the Absurd standpoint, it certainly makes the audience uncomfortable, “attacks the comfortable certainties of religious orthodoxy” in the most offensive way possible, but it fails to shock the viewers out of complacency. We face the harsh realities of gun violence and religious persecution in America every day. School shooting safety drills are the new fire drills. Further, one doesn’t need to go to a synagogue to mock a Holocaust survivor. That is punching down. Despite Deadline reporting that its sources claim that Baron Cohen’s team notified Evans about the real nature of the scene after it was shot, with there even being footage of the occurrence with Baron Cohen revealing his true identity, a lawsuit ensued.
One doesn’t need to go to a synagogue to mock a Holocaust survivor. That is punching down.
These aren’t the people Baron Cohen hoped would sue him, especially as he is working with ADL to end Holocaust denial on social media platforms. He fuels the fire of what is now overt among our country, but it often gets muddled and overshadowed by the caricature of his original creation. A character he doesn’t quite know what to do with anymore. Baron Cohen punched up in the first Borat. For some reason, he disregarded that rule in the sequel for the sake of “pointing toward lunacies” in our government that have been critiqued, satirized, and analyzed to utter redundancy for decades in the mainstream.
Jeanise Jones, or the babysitter, recently released an interview with the New York Post, stating she felt betrayed for being mislead to believe this was “a documentary for this young lady to understand she has rights and she can do whatever a man can do,” according to what the production, looking for a “sassy” Black grandmother (a problematic character description, in and of itself, perpetuating a stereotype), informed her. This was since rebuked by Jones in an interview with Variety, but subsequently proven valid with audio of Jones by the Post to Variety (such is the case with publicity, post-Baron Cohen satires, as not even the press is privy to insider information behind the production). “The New York Post reached out after publication with a recording of Jones’ quote to confirm the validity of their story,” an Editor’s Note reads. Regardless of how Jones felt after finding out the production she participated in was a satire, she takes partial responsibility for not reading the contracts.
Still, Jones being paid a measly $3,600 for her participation and put through an undue amount of emotional stress worrying about the fate of Maria Bakalova’s Tutar, while being laid off from her job during the pandemic, as Amazon rakes in tens of millions of viewers in its opening weekend, isn’t a good look for Baron Cohen. In the Post article, Jones’ pastor, Derrick Scobey, mentioned, “I would love to see [Baron Cohen], if nothing else, on a Zoom call in a very lighthearted manner, ‘We’re sorry we pulled one over on you.'” Scobey pastor has since created a GoFundMe for Jones to help compensate her properly for her contributions. The page is very coltish and tongue-in-cheek, reading, “We have been praying for the young lady in the movie because we all genuinely thought she was in trouble. The joke is on us/Jeanise, and that’s no problem.” They are approaching Jones’ situation in a respectful manner, rightfully thanking Baron Cohen for casting her to begin with; yet, good intentions can fall flat. Scobey’s actions speak louder than his words. One doesn’t point out to the New York Post that Baron Cohen specifically sought an elderly Black woman at their church, then proceed to start a GoFundMe to help compensate Jones without being, at least, slightly upset. Thankfully, the community in which she and Scobey live and beyond have donated more than $150,000, and Baron Cohen donated $145,000 to her church. One has to ask themselves, if Jones had internalized her hurt, would Baron Cohen have made the donation as a gesture of apology? It would have been more ethical to pay these important characters in his film more to begin with.
It begs the question, why seek a small-town, religious, elderly “sassy” Black woman for the target of a prank instead of easier targets that are much more deserving of being the butt of the joke in the public eye? Why give her, who Baron Cohen knew would have a central role in the film, such a minimal pay? Despite Baron Cohen coming out smelling like a rose, legally, after Dim Evans and Jones, he didn’t have to ruffle these particular feathers in an attempt to bring his “[audience] face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it;” that gun violence, religious persecution, and sex trafficking in America are pervasive.
If Jones had internalized her hurt, would Baron Cohen have made the donation as a gesture of apology?
Go after the QAnon conspiracy theorists, gun-toting Nazis at Trump and Pence rallies, the corrupt, the perverted, toxic fraternity culture, religious persecution all you want. But to use survivors of genocide and impoverished, historically disenfranchised people as unwitting subjects of a Borat sketch? There’s a disconnect, here. Surprisingly, rather than apologize to Dim Evans, Baron Cohen fought to discredit her arguments that she was offended and felt betrayed, instead releasing a PR-laden statement through his and Amazon’s attorney, Russell Smith, stating how his work with the ADL will solidify her legacy.
“The lawsuit was dismissed, unconditionally,” Smith said in a statement to Variety. “The lawsuit is over. Sacha Baron Cohen was deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with Judith Dim Evans, whose compassion and courage as a Holocaust survivor has touched the hearts of millions of people who have seen the film. Judith’s life is a powerful rebuke to those who deny the Holocaust, and with this film and his activism, Sacha Baron Cohen will continue his advocacy to combat Holocaust denial around the world.”
Dim Evans’ estate never got closure for the mockery Baron Cohen made out of their family; that will forever be an unnecessary dark chapter in the late Dim Evans’ inspiring life. It takes cringe to a whole new level, this time unintentional on Baron Cohen’s part. As famous comedians like George Carlin believed, and as Eddie Murphy has learned and believes, punching up – not taking cheap shots (insulting the more than half of the population of this country that enables and perpetuates heightened prejudice is not punching down) – is the key to effective sociopolitical comedy – or any comedy, for that matter.
The Rudy Giuliani controversy is rivaling these other issues with the film, taking away from Baron Cohen’s goal of shocking his audience out of its comfort zone. As such, compounded by the fact that the film doubles as a ham-fisted, propagandistic attempt to vote an administration out, the impact of this sequel remains short-lived. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm treads over the same material with diminishing returns, this time unwittingly bringing down some of society’s more upstanding citizens with the clumsy character in a half-witted attempt to conceive of new ways to condemn what we already know, rather than continuing with the Borat tradition of punching up and exposing its viewers to new, harsh realities that shock us into action. This film is not an essential exposé of American culture, it is merely another repetitious rehashing of the same talking points the American Media Industrial Complex has trampled over for years, this time articulated by a beloved pop culture icon. As such, the disappearing sequel pales in comparison to the original, immortal Borat.