This time, Sacha Baron Cohen is up front about his intentions.
One of the most famous scenes in the career of Borat Sagdiev, the fictional Kazakh journalist created by British Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, is when he gets an entire country-western bar to sing along to a song with the chorus “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”
And there’s a moment in the new Borat Subsequent Moviefilm where the high-fiving, catchphrase-spouting prankster gets up on a stage and starts singing a bouncy tune about the “Wuhan flu” to a crowd of conspiracy theorists. It seems like Jews and wells might sneak into the song at any second.
It doesn’t quite get there, but there’s no denying that new permutations of antisemitism are certainly on Cohen’s mind in 2020. In the new movie (now streaming on Amazon Prime), Borat successfully gets a bakery to decorate a cake with “Jews Will Not Replace Us” and goads a plastic surgeon into mimicking a caricature of a Jewish nose. In a recent promotional appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, he also insists the coronavirus was created in a lab in Israel.
Cohen has been playing Borat on and off for more than two decades, first on TV and then in movies. And even more than his rampant misogyny and general buffoonery, antisemitism has always been central to the character’s identity. Cohen himself speaks fluent Hebrew (that’s usually the language he slips into when mimicking Borat’s “Kazakh” tongue) and authored a graduate thesis on antisemitism.
But when the original 2006 Borat movie, including its infamous “Running of the Jew” scene, became a huge hit, the Anti-Defamation League criticized Cohen, saying that many viewers wouldn’t get that he was making fun of bigots instead of encouraging them. That concern takes on new layers in 2020, the age of “fake news” and social media bubbles; when no one, not even the president, really cares what’s true and what’s not; and when many Americans are fine sharing their own bigoted worldview even without a weird foreigner goading them into it.
Much of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and the current controversy surrounding it, focuses on Borat’s efforts to offer his “daughter,” Tutar (played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova), as a bride to various members of Trump’s inner circle — including, in one deeply uncomfortable scene, Rudy Giuliani. But as in his previous outings, Cohen also makes sure to allow plenty of time for Borat’s antisemitism. In the film’s craziest scene, a depressed Borat enters a synagogue “to await the next mass shooting;” he’s “disguised as a Jew,” which in his case means sporting a hook nose, devil horns, and “puppetmaster” strings.
What happens next defies all of Borat logic. One of the Jews he meets at the synagogue is Judith Dim Evans, a Holocaust survivor. She confronts him about his bigotry: “Look at me, I am a Jew,” she says. “The Holocaust happened.” Borat weeps; they embrace. It’s a moment that finds tenderness in the absurd.
The rules of Borat dictate that he must learn the wrong lesson from this encounter, of course. But Cohen nevertheless dedicates the film to Evans (she died after the scene was shot). He has also made up with the ADL: The actor is now an outspoken advocate of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign to limit the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media. Their campaign recently bore fruit as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have all announced they will ban Holocaust denial from their platforms, for fear of accidentally creating the next Borat.
Still, there may be no better illustration of the confusing role Borat plays in society than what happened next: Evans’ daughter sued Cohen and the film’s producers, alleging that they coerced her mother to participate in a film that “mock[s] the Holocaust and Jewish culture.” This lawsuit lends some credence to the ADL’s original concern that many people simply don’t get the joke.
Regardless of where Borat’s morals or your own lie, his new movie is full of his signature deeply uncomfortable laughs. But when so many of us in the “US&A” now voice opinions just like Borat’s (minus the ridiculous accent), his shtick lacks some of the same punch. To put it another way, there might be nobody left to throw down the well.