Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, on a trip across America to document our culture for his homeland, has talked his way into singing our National Anthem at a rodeo in Virginia. He enters the ring wearing his thick moustache, a dim-witted grin, and an American flag for a shirt. "Kazakhstan supports America’s war of terror," he announces over the loudspeakers — in heavily Eastern European-accented English — to cheers. "May the U.S. and A. kill every one of the terrorists." Even louder cheers. "May George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq." The cheering is only a little uncertain.
Borat is a good-natured racist, misogynist, and every other kind of -ist. He is also a fictional character, the creation of British comic Sacha Baron Cohen, star of Da Ali G. Show . The racist, misogynistic Americans he exposes are absolutely real. This is one of the levels of Baron Cohen’s brilliant film, Borat!: the character puts others at ease by his ignorant beliefs, and by manipulating their condescension, so they will show their hand.
"In my country, we throw homosexuals in prison and then hang them," Borat tells the rodeo’s manager. "That’s what we’re trying to get done here," the man replies. An RV full of drunken frat boys lets all their vicious hatred of women hang out. A gun dealer cold-bloodedly suggests to Borat the best weapon for killing Jews. And a Southern dining society can keep decorum when Borat brings a bag of his own feces to the dinner table – but not when the stripper he’s ordered turns out to be black.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is a movie with a deep socio-political agenda. The bulk of Borat! is in the tradition of recent assault comedies like the South Park movie, Team America: World Police , The Aristocrats , and Jackass . Some viewers will feel tickled unmercifully; others will recoil as if from electric shock. Don’t know which you are? Do you think you would laugh if you saw an obese man’s naked, hairy buttocks wrapped around Borat’s face? If you’re even a little unsure of your answer, you’d better see something else.
Among the angry is the government of Kazahkstan, none too happy about its country’s portrayal as a land of squalor, racism, and prostitution. The Anti-Defamation League has warned that some people might not understand that the Borat character’s racism is a joke. A similar argument is often levied against horror movies, and is just as spurious. It also might be worth noting that Baron Cohen is a strictly observant Jew.
The dizzying joy of Borat! is to watch as a fictional character, with no cultural sensitivity whatsoever, spills his blinkered opinions, with perfect comic timing, in the very presence of those most likely to be offended. In our politically-correct age, some of us, in a dark theater, are grateful for his nerve.
This and other music, theater, and movie reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.