Chances are this poet was pulling double duty when the English comic Sacha Baron Cohen shot footage of his character “Borat” just down the street from my house in Savannah, Georgia. At the time, several years ago, I was completing the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance while also taking care of my mother. What do you suppose Mr. Cohen was busy doing?
Basically he was serving up his unique brand of cultural satire by walking fully suited, with cameraman in tow, into a shower room full of totally unclothed Savannah Gnats baseball team members. That particular footage wound up on Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show” DVD, featuring his portrayal of the wanna-be Jamaican Londoner gangsta rapper: Ali G. Since I missed greeting Cohen when he visited my fair city (as well as Atlanta, Charleston, and other southern venues) writing a review of his outrageously iconoclastic movie, “BORAT, Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” seems like a southerly hospitable thing to do to make up for it.
As I watched “BORAT, Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” I squirmed with discomfort, scowled in outrage, and laughed my western civilized butt off. What I didn’t understand was why. The answer came later just as I was drifting off to sleep and the following thought popped into my head:
Sacha Baron Cohen, as Borat, only appears on the surface to ridicule Women, Jews, and African Americans––and also seems to make light of such serious issues as incest, homophobia, and extreme social retardation. Beneath that hilarious surface he is actually lampooning the real-world bigotry, ignorance, and hypocrisy that pushed the global village into the state of chaos it occupies today. It is Cohen’s gift as a performer that he can project, at the same time, both a relatable sense of vulnerability and an excruciating sense of offensiveness. We can call that genius but we can also call it true to life.
At its ground zero level, this movie is satire of the highest and most deadly kind because it does more than simply exploit subconscious fears and social taboos. It smashes them right in the viewer’s face, such as when Borat excuses himself from the dinner table of his genteel white South Carolina hosts only to return with his refuse in a bag. As if that is not enough to freak out this good-old-boy family, he invites a black prostitute (played by the beautiful Luenell) to join them and is promptly evicted from the house along with her.
Or take for an equally scandalous example the now infamous naked wrestling scene with Borat and Azamot (courageously played by Ken Davitian). It would have been enough for most viewers to see the two knock each other out and then watch the movie fade to another scene. But that would have restricted the nude battle royal to the hotel room and our naked clowns would not have been able to literally show their asses in public––as some people tend to do with their clothes on.
Like Monty Python, Peter Sellers, Saturday Night Live alumni, and Richard Pryor before him, Cohen is a master satirist who takes no prisoners. “Borat” the character may be an innocent Kazakhstanian abroad in America, but Sacha Baron Cohen the man is clearly a critical observer of humanity intent on exposing the laughable and the painful absurdities of what is supposed to be our civilized technologically-enhanced modern life.
As a writer, one has to admire Cohen’s ability to create fascinating characters and build entire movies around them. Borat is only one of three cultural types that he has unleashed utilizing the machinery of Hollywood hype running at full throttle. Although often annoying to the extreme, his Ali G character was appealing enough to help pave the way for the movie Borat to gross some $259 million dollars to date. With that kind of box office power, what’s the reaction likely to be when his gay Austrian fashion-critic character of Bruno takes over the big screen? Before answering too quickly, it might be worth considering that Cohen reportedly has already signed a $42.5 million deal with Universal Pictures for the film. Like him or hate him, Cohen has proven himself a committed artist with no intention either of starving or being ignored.
VISIONS OF A SKYLARK DRESSED IN BLACK