Why Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat impersonation will not be called a Blackface performance
When in the spring of 2007, in the wake of the worldwide release of Sacha Baron Cohen’s first Borat film, I was mockingly called a “borat” by a student and a senior colleague in the very classroom in which I was teaching, I was stung by the insult but did not know how to react. As far as I could tell, no-one on my American university campus, except for a few baffled Kazakhs like myself, considered Baron Cohen’s caricature offensive, let alone racist.
That I secretly admired the film’s wild mashup of languages, locales and grotesque performances was not helpful in helping me to find an adequate response. I had not been able to sit through multiple viewings, not because I was offended by the film’s stereotyping but because I could not stomach its relentless vulgarity. During the one viewing I managed to finish, however, I looked in awe at the wide-open gash that was Borat Sagdiyev: a frenetic boaster, racist and sexual predator, out of whom came oozing some of the worst behaviours and prejudices one could possibly encounter in the world.
Unfortunately for people like me, many who came to see the film decided that Borat was not a freakish kind of everyman and that his national identity mattered more than the Hebrew language he spoke and the Romanian gypsy village in which he lived. In the process, “Borat” turned from a (culturally non-existing) proper name into a racial signifier: the label happily given to any native of Kazakhstan who, by Western standards, is showing signs of being unadapted or uninformed.
When I was called a “borat” for the first time, in that American classroom, I was already in my thirties, but the insult stung because it came at the end of a long line of racial taunts that I’d had to endure since my childhood. Soviet-era Kazakhstan was a highly stratified society, in which a dominant group of ethnically white Russian speakers could openly express their contempt for the indigenous population that was labouring underneath them. Countless were the times when my Kazakh friends and I were called "baran" ("sheep") or “kalbit” (“leave me, lice”), ridiculed for our Asian looks, and physically threatened.
To not internalize racial insults and threats, to not allow them to make oneself feel inferior, is a constant battle with which every member of every ethnic minority in the world is intimately familiar. Yet there I was, thirty-seven years old, being returned to an old internal argument that I thought I had turned off long ago, all because I was being identified with some freakish movie character.
Imagine I had been of African or Jewish descent. How different the situation would have been in that American classroom in 2007. Probably neither the student nor the senior colleague would have dared to use any kind of racial invective. Or if they had, I would readily have had recourse to a university administrator, one or more civil-rights organisations and a growing group of bloggers and public intellectuals to help me, at the very least, denounce the incident.
As it was, I had no such recourse. I had access to neither the intellectual capital nor the media channels that would have helped me make the case that we, ethnic Kazakhs, would be as eligible as Jews and African-Americans for being made exempt from racial taunting by representatives from other ethnic groups. In this regard, little has changed. The intellectual capital and media resources are still missing. Awareness of the traumatic history of ethnic Kazakhs has grown somewhat but is still mostly confined to small pockets of the academic world.
Yet the traumatic events in Kazakh history are real. Without wanting to fall into the trap of competitive victimhood, let me summarize these events as follows.
Over the course of four years (from 1929 to 1933), at least 1.5 million of Kazakh nomads, or about 40% of the entire ethnic group, were annihilated by depriving them of their food supply as well as their economic livelihood. Historians refer to this event as the Kazakh Famine.
The annihilation of Kazakh nomads and their way of life was followed by the gradual execution of any surviving independent artists and intellectuals and by almost six decades of aggressive indoctrination, the point of which was not only to inculcate Marxist-Leninist ideals but also to make ethnic minorities such as Kazakhs believe that their own culture was inferior to that of Slavic Russians.
For an equally long time, the Kazakh territory hosted one of the world’s largest nuclear testing sites, where the local communities were used as guinea pigs, resulting in genetic deformations that are still being passed down the generations.
And in 1986, three years before the Chinese student protests on Peking’s Tiananmen Square, many thousands of Kazakh students had already tried to do the same, on the city of Almaty’s Brezhnev Square, before being wiped off the square by masked soldiers, with an unidentified number of students disappearing forever.
Together, these events constitute enough of a traumatic history that would make most professionals in the Western media and entertainment industries agree that ethnic Kazakhs should benefit from the same level of safeguarding as other, similarly ravaged minorities around the world.
In today’s mainstream, the generally accepted safeguarding norm seems to be that satire – the mockery of perceived shortcomings in a certain type of person – can be performed only by those who belong to the same ethnic group as the type of person being mocked. Hence Jewish and African-American comedians can mock the shortcomings of their own ethnic group and still receive acclaim, from both the in-group and the out-group, for doing so.
Cross-cultural satire, on the other hand, has become rare – and with good reason. As Terry Eagleton has noted (in an essay on the broader subject of humour), one of the goals of satire is always to make the satirist and his audience feel superior to the benighted fool(s) he is mocking. Cross-cultural satire therefore always runs the risk of being racist and of stoking racism in its viewers.
Jews and African-Americans understand the stakes. Their long histories of persecution have made them adept at catching any public manifestations of racism. Thanks to the enduring efforts of their public intellectuals and media professionals, awareness has grown to such an extent that today few mainstream comedians, and certainly no comedians belonging to another ethnic group, would still dare to put out viciously denigrating jokes about either group.
That the safeguards that have thus been put up are sometimes scoffed at as being “politically correct” is something with which I do not agree. As someone who has suffered racial discrimination, and who, for historical reasons, believes in the power of mass media in perpetuating racial discrimination, I can only marvel at the cultural work that has been done by the Jewish and African-American communities.
In the current marketplace of ideas, it seems that every ethnic group is left to defend its own interests, even if it also seems clear that many can rest assured that they will be protected by the entertainment industry’s implicit safeguards. That these safeguards cannot be taken for granted, however, has been shown upon the worldwide release of Baron Cohen’s second Borat film, in which, once again, and even more so than in the first Borat film, ethnic Kazakhs have been made the butt of some crude caricatures.
All in all, the caricatures are not any more contrived than the ones in the first film. Here, Muslim believers dig their head in the sand while praying. Families lock up their daughters until they can hand them off to the highest bidders. Teenagers celebrate Holocaust Remembrance Day in discothèques, while their parents are staging a Jew chase in the streets of their towns and villages. And the greatest mongrel of them all, Borat himself, freely shares with whomever wants to listen his "Nazi" fantasies about exterminating Jews and gypsies. (For the blithely misinformed: ethnic Kazakhs did not participate in any extermination programmes during World War II. Whichever young Kazakh males were still alive at the time were enlisted in the Soviet Army.)
What is different in the second film, however, is the insistent, hard-edged use of written Kazakh language (not Russian language). When KGB interrogators inject Borat with a secret fluid, the label reads, in impeccable Kazakh, “the tears of gypsies”. In Kazakh the phrase is almost the homophone of a phrase long associated with human-rights abuse (rape in particular), so when I saw the contortion of this phrase on the injection bottle, I almost fainted. I still cannot wrap my brain around the vicious suggestions that the film is making in this scene.
That among the millions of viewers of the new Borat film only a few will notice the hard-edged use to which the Kazakh language has been put is to be expected. That reviewers who could have noticed it (such as Masha Gessen) have not done so is already more disappointing. What is galling, however, is that, for whatever personal, acrimonious reason, Baron Cohen and his production team have decided to skewer the cultural mashup of the first film, harden their attack on ethnic Kazakhs, and do it in such a way that only the latter will feel it.
People like me experience the film’s anti-Kazakh satire as racist. Many may find it difficult to accept this criticism, not only because they are not aware of the scope of Kazakhs’ ravaged history but also because the film’s comedic qualities make it easy to gloss over the nastiness of the caricatures on display.
Yet what is troubling in this film is not so difficult to see and can easily be explained by analogy. Consider the comedic qualities of the Kazakh scenes: they consist of a series of short skits, they are set to funky music, and they are performed by a cast of actors who speak in weird accents and who do not belong to the ethnic group they are mockingly imitating. Now replace, as the ethnic target, Kazakhs with African-Americans. What do we see now? Nothing other than a Blackface minstrel show: a type of performance that could no longer be staged in a mainstream comedy today.
If Baron Cohen and his cast of extras had smeared yellow paint on their faces and narrowed their eyes, the analogy would have been so obvious that it might have caused a massive outcry against the film, not just from ethnic Kazakhs but from other, intellectually and economically more powerful, Asian groups. That the analogy is not complete does not mean that it does not stand, however. Baron Cohen's is a covert form of Blackface -- one that is designed to bypass the ethnic safeguarding norms of twenty-first-century mainstream comedy.
In the space of little more than ten years, in two different films, each time to critical and popular acclaim, Baron Cohen has been allowed to deliver a Blackface performance. How did the two Borat films bypass the entertainment industry’s ethnic safeguards so easily?
From a free-market perspective, the two Borat films are a demonstration of free expression, successful at staying within the limits of the kind of cross-cultural satire that can still be made and distributed in the West in the twenty-first century. To do so, they have to exploit, however, a double standard (a blind spot, if you will) that the Western media and entertainment industries have been too complacent to investigate and reconsider.
That Amazon Studios, which bought the second film’s exclusive streaming rights for an alleged $80 million, did not balk at the film’s Blackface impersonation of ethnic Kazakhs demonstrates that the entertainment industry’s current safeguards do not apply to every ethnic group in equal measure, and that, in fact, certain ethnic groups are still seen as fair game.
To be sure, Kazakhs are not the only ones in the category of “fair game”. As Edward Lucas has noted in his review of the Borat phenomenon, Kazakhs, in the Western mind, are part of an amorphous Eurasian populace, inhabiting a hinterland that stretches from the Balkans to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, about which anyone can still make the crudest Orientalist assumptions without being accused of racism.
Apart from Lucas, most reviewers to date have glossed over the question whether Baron Cohen’s anti-Kazakh satire is racist or not. The most notable exception has been Inkoo Kang, who, upon rewatching the first Borat film, has bravely come out and declared that the film is not just a satirical critique of racism in two different countries (America and Kazakhstan), but that the film itself is racist, especially in how it ridicules the benighted, impoverished lives of third-world Kazakhs.
Baron Cohen has been called a satirical “genius” by some. Whether you think this is true, or whether you think he’s funny at all, very much depends on how much vulgarity you can stomach, or, if you’re like me, on how much racist disdain you can swallow. What the satirist Baron Cohen excels at, I think, is choosing his targets pragmatically.
About the origins of the bigoted and preposterously boastful Borat character he began to develop in the late 1990s, Baron Cohen has always been deliberately vague. However, given that Baron Cohen never lived in the Eurasian hinterland, his sources of inspiration must have been the people that crossed his path at social gatherings in London and elsewhere: most likely, Russian-speaking kleptocrats from the Eurasian hinterland, accompanied by their families and their representatives.
That these types of people do not feature in either of the Borat films is significant. Baron Cohen wants to ridicule those who hold bigoted views on the social problems that are dear to him, without touching on the reality of economic deprivation in which such views tend to fester. Illegally obtained wealth could be made the stuff of comedy, but in the Borat films Baron Cohen has chosen to turn his attention to subjects that are much less risky.
In speeches and interviews, Baron Cohen has often cast himself as a crusader against bigotry and authoritarianism. There is no reason to doubt Baron Cohen’s good intentions, but the Borat films achieve nothing in this regard. If anything, they are likely to reinforce the prejudices held by viewers from all ideological persuasions. The only comedies that have a chance of changing viewers’ prejudices are those that are able to show respect, or at least compassion, for those being laughed at – think of Charlie Chaplin’s comedies as towering examples. The Borat films are too full of disdain to show any such capacity (a feeble attempt at Chaplinesque father-daughter comedy in the second film notwithstanding).
Apart from confirming millions of viewers’ existing prejudices and apart from giving the majority of them a good angry laugh, what else will the two Borat films achieve? For the tiny minority to which I belong, the answer is painfully clear. Even though my personal and political views are liberal, like Baron Cohen’s, I will probably be stuck with the stigma of being a “borat” for a long time. Such is the consequence of racial stereotyping. And such can be the power of racist caricature, even when, or perhaps especially when, it’s presented as a fast-moving Blackface minstrel show.