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Sacha Cohen’s War

May 23, 2012

The defining moment in The Dictator comes when Sacha Baron Cohen sings ”Ebony and Ivory” with the decapitated head of a black man. Cohen’s character, the fictional North African dictator General Hafez Aladeen has just snuck into a funeral in Harlem, intent on stealing a beard from the deceased. When Aladeen and his cohort are discovered, they hastily cut off the man’s head, and narrowly escape an angry black mob. Once they’ve returned to their hideout, Aladeen slips his hand inside the lifeless black head and uses it as a puppet to sing a mocking rendition of a song about racial harmony. It’s a sequence that may well define Cohen’s brand of comedy which presumes to irreverently satirize racial attitudes, while appropriating and hiding behind a black or brown mask.

Just as Aladeen is pursued by an angry mob, Cohen often leaves a trail of lawsuits in his wake, once his real-life marks realize they’ve been duped. For many, like Ayman Abu Aita, the Palestinian civilian, smeared as a terrorist in Bruno, and the impoverished Romanian villagers mocked in Borat, there is little recourse. Cohen has the deep pockets of a Hollywood legal team, while the residents of Glod don’t even have running water.

When you want to make it in Hollywood, however, you pick your targets carefully and go through their agents. Only then can you safely teabag Eminem or ”kidnap” Pamela Anderson. When in doubt, pick on someone smaller, a C-lister or an old woman and then call it satire.

The Dictator is Cohen’s first film as a Hollywood insider. Too famous to prank anyone with internet access, Cohen has brought his minstrel show out of the realm of Candid Camera verite and into the tamer genre of middlebrow American comedy. He brought his brown masks along with him, but the racial satire is broader than ever before.

As you may have guessed from the marketing assault, Cohen plays General Hafez Aladeen, the tyrannical leader of a fictional North African country called Wadiya. He has a coterie of female bodyguards, outrageous fashion sense, and a penchant for executing anyone who crosses him. The movie follows Aladeen to New York, where he’s meant to address the UN, but due to a political conspiracy, gets replaced with a doppelganger. Aladeen finds refuge in a hippie co-op run by a naive vegan feminist played by Anna Faris. Most of the film’s comedy rehashes Cohen’s ethnic fish out of water template, with Aladeen’s racism and misogyny clashing against the liberal values of his new friends. At one point, Faris offers to take him to visit the “rape center.” You can guess the punchline to that one.

Cohen also plays the doppelganger Efawadh, a dimwitted peasant who, when left in a room with naked women, mistakes them for goats and tries to milk their breasts. He also drinks his own piss in front of a UN Assembly.

Despite its retrograde premise and Arab minstrelsy, The Dictator opened last week to mostly positive reviews, and almost no serious criticism. Mainstream pop culture sites, even those that typically critique racism in the media, were curiously silent. It was a stark contrast to the high profile controversies of the Pop Chips ad featuring Ashton Kutcher in brownface and Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis shtick at the Oscars. Is this because as Max Blumenthal tweeted, “Some minstrel shows are more popular than others?”

To be fair, there has been some pushback. In an op-ed for CNN, Dean Obeidallah criticized the movie, not because of its racist jokes, but because Cohen is white. “If you are going to mock and ridicule us for profit,” he wrote “can you at least cast Arabs and Indians to play us?” There was also this lengthy essay at Loonwatch and a more blunt assessment at Foreign Policy.

Two days before the film opened, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi penned a satirical column for Salon attacking Hollywood’s history of whitewashing. His article and the accompanying slideshow called out familiar lowlights like Mickey Rooney as a bucktoothed Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but made no mention of Cohen or The Dictator. When I engaged with Mandvi on Twitter, he denied that The Dictator fit his definition of whitewashing.

Mandvi responded that “whitewashing and minstrelsy are separate issues” and said that he really couldn’t comment on Cohen’s character without seeing the film. (Mandvi has a small part in the movie.) Ultimately, he claimed that the issue was too nuanced for Twitter.

Well, let’s look at those nuances. Below I present the most common defenses of The Dictator and my thoughts on them.

But Aladeen isn’t an “Arab.”

Perhaps anticipating charges of minstrelsy, early in the film,  Cohen has Aladeen deny that he is an Arab. Racial ambiguity has been a hallmark of Cohen’s shtick ever since Ali G, harassed by an authority figure, asked “Is it because I is black?”

But there’s no mistaking the inspiration for this character. A map in the movie situates Aladeen’s homeland of Wadiya directly to the east of Sudan. Cohen has said that the film was inspired by a novel penned by Saddam Hussein. Aladeen is also clearly meant to resemble the late Muammar Gaddafi. There’s also a hint of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as the film’s timely plot concerns Wadiya’s enrichment of uranium “for peaceful purposes.”

Though Wadiya is clearly an Arab country, the film follows Hollywood’s Orientalist playbook, mixing Persian, Arab and South Asian performers and cultural references. The central Arab characters are played by Cohen, Ben Kingsley (who is part Indian) and Jason Manzoukas (a Greek American.) The movie’s theme song is by Punjabi MC, a British Indian musician.

The Dictator’s humor is not racist. It’s about racism.

This is one of the slipperiest defenses offered for racist humor– that it’s not really racist, but rather ironically commenting on racism. The claim almost always deserves scrutiny. First of all, if this were true, The Dictator would not have found such popularity among racists, as these tweets demonstrate. OK, you might say, perhaps Cohen’s satire goes over the heads of your average American racist. But this ignores the thorny nature of ironic humor. In the film, Aladeen refers to black people as “subsaharans” and “blackies.” The white liberal audience laughs (mine did). Are they laughing at Aladeen’s ignorance? At the violation of hearing a racial slur? Do they recognize their own racism in the character?

In one scene, Aladeen remarks that darker-skinned men have lower sexual standards in women. The audience laughs again, as if the joke has revealed an uncomfortable “politically incorrect” truth, rather than pandered to a racist stereotype. Ironic racism lets audiences have our cake and eat it too. It gives us permission to laugh at the violation of a racist joke, while comforting us that we do not share the same toxic attitudes.

Most of the film’s humor– the racial caricatures, the creepy attacks on feminism, the numerous rape jokes and the gay stereotypes have a similar thorniness. We’re invited to laugh at their wrongness but allowed to feel superior to such backwards attitudes, because we’re good liberals who know better, while the (brown) characters in the movie are savages.

But Cohen is an equal opportunity satirist. He makes fun of everyone, even Jews.

It’s true that in The Dictator, as in his previous work, Cohen’s humor relies heavily on anti-semitic jokes. But here, as in Borat, he’s attributing those sentiments to the ethnic Other. Cohen doesn’t really mock Jews. In fact, he makes a caricature of the Other’s anti-semitism. Borat, for instance, was a vicious anti-semite whose village in Kazakhstan held an annual “Running of the Jews.” This gag was based on a lie, because anti-semitism in Kazakhstan is actually quite rare. One of the deeper ironies of the village sequence is that Borat was also racist against “Gypsies.” And yet, Cohen the prankster had no reservations about exploiting the people of Glod to make the film.

Even in Cohen’s most notorious stunt, in which Borat led a bar full of “rednecks” in a singalong of “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” it’s unclear how much he revealed about actual anti-semitism. Though what we saw onscreen was a room full of rural white Americans cheerfully singing about killing Jews, follow-up reports suggest that many of the patrons were in on the joke.

In any case, if Cohen were really an equal opportunity satirist, he would pick more challenging targets. His frat-boy style satire doesn’t tip any sacred cows, for instance, when it comes to Israel. Cohen, an Orthodox Jew who was raised in the Zionist Habonim Dror, rarely criticizes Israel and its policies. Instead, his comedy exaggerates anti-semitism, while also attributing violence, homophobia and misogyny to the Muslim Other. It’s pinkwashing as comedy.

But Aladeen makes a speech where he criticizes America too, right?

Yes, in the film’s penultimate scene, Aladeen gives a speech in which he inadvertently argues that America with its income inequality, media consolidation  and disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans already has the hallmarks of a dictatorship. It’s the movie’s only attempt at critiquing a first world target, but it mostly feels like pandering to Obama liberals.

The Dictator is not the work of a radical satirist, but of an establishment court jester. If Cohen’s political sympathies are at all in doubt, check out his social media team’s obnoxious linkbait at Buzzfeed, where Evo Morales is branded as a “dictator” mocked for wearing traditional Andean clothing (seems they’ve silently edited this since I tweeted about it) and where Hugo Chavez finds himself in a rogue’s gallery with Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Kim Jong-Il.

The Dictator has much in common with voyeuristic spectacles like Boobquake and Draw Muhammad Day, in which Western liberals engaged in Islamophobia while purporting to defend feminism and free speech.

The Dictator is like a modern version of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

I’ll let film critic JR Jones handle this one:

Cohen probably thinks he’s Charlie Chaplin lampooning Hitler, but of course Hitler was still on top of the world when The Great Dictator came out in 1940; Cohen is actually Chaplin’s antithesis, a first-world bully content to target the Other.

In other words, Gaddafi wasn’t Hitler. The War on Terror isn’t WW2. And this is a shitty analogy.

Whatever you think of The Dictator, it does not arrive in a cultural vacuum. It finds us, instead, at the “end” of a bloody and illegal war that had grave consequences for the people of Iraq. It appears as we are “winding down” our long war in Afghanistan. And while we rattle sabers with Iran. It follows Obama’s, um, “unauthorized bombing” of Libya (Wadiya’s most obvious inspiration) which led to the eventual capture, rape and execution of Gaddafi.

The film’s release coincides with a new era of drone warfare against Arabs and Muslims, of faceless warriors dropping remote control bombs on Pakistan and Yemen. It arrives in an era of presidential kill lists, indefinite detention and omnipresent surveillance of Muslim Americans. It opens while liberals boast about the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s success in putting a due process-free bullet in Osama bin Laden’s face. In short, Cohen’s minstrel show comes in the midst of a period of peak violence against Arabs and Muslims.

There is no war without culture war, and Cohen’s Dictator shtick has the dubious function of allowing us to laugh at (or perhaps justify) our recent and ongoing crimes of war and racial profiling. After Cohen smeared Abu Aita as a terrorist in Bruno, he perpetrated the lie in an interview with David Letterman while out of character. Branding ordinary Palestinians as terrorists to further your own agenda? That’s what bullying governments do. It is not the stuff of satire.

The Dictator is not a product of the Arab Spring, but a sideshow in the unending War on Terror.


  • http://twitter.com/kade_ellis kade ellis

    yes. thanks for saying these things. they needed to be said. and fuck salon’s racist review of this movie. 

  • Abcd

    Yes, yes, yes. Thank you!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=562384114 Ishrat Ghani

    I was surprised to see the overwhelming amount of positive reviews for this movie. I thought it was going to be opposite, but surprise, surprise… I’m in America: Land of the media-controlled “free.” Your article kept on reminding me of something Sigmund Freud’s son once said: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the
    organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in
    democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society
    constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our
    country.” 

  • Anonymous

    Well-reasoned, but I would not have expected that Adult Baby Jesus was so politically correct. (I went to liberal arts college in the mid-1980s, when P.C. was a leftist term of self-deprecation.) What happened?

  • Anonymous

    Did you ever read any Edward Said in that liberal arts college? Or anything about the harmful history of blackface?

    And can you really not see a difference between me (a white American raised in a Methodist family) playing with Christian archetypes, and a Jewish man putting on blackface to mock Arabs in a time of racial profiling and war?  

  • Anonymous

    Oh no, I made Baby Jesus cry. Yes, I can see there’s a difference between what you have done and this.

    Curious what you think of the movie Four Lions, though. Is a satire on suicide bombers directed by a white British man (Chris Morris) starring British Pakistani and British Iranian actors ok? Chris Morris’ fake news shows like The Day Today and Brass Eye were always more nuanced than Baron Cohen’s (see comments on this Guardian article on The Dictator to see frequent mentions of the idea that Baron Cohen ripped off Chris Morris. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2011/jun/17/sacha-baron-cohen-dictator-charlie-chaplin )

  • Anonymous

    Don’t mistake an eyeroll for tears. ;)

    Yes, I’ve seen FOUR LIONS and I like it a lot. I think Morris is the anti-Cohen in many ways. Morris’ movie has no blackface, no brownface and doesn’t essentialize about Arabs or Muslims. In fact, the movie is unexpectedly sweet and its main character is  sympathetic. It’s kind of like an old Ealing Studios comedy– dark humored but light of spirit.That’s a neat trick considering the subject matter. Morris is also fairly outspoken against Islamophobia and racism, so it’s not surprising that his film shows uncommon sensitivity and intelligence. Here’s an excellent piece he wrote on Martin Amis. 

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/nov/25/bookscomment.religion 

  • http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/sunday-reading-50/ Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

    [...] Sacha Cohen’s War [...]

  • Elliott Prasse-Freeman

    great deconstruction of SBC, but endorsing Four Lions? Yes, there’s a complexity to the characters and tenderness to the relationships, and that is precisely what makes the actions written for them (the desire for suicide bombing) that much more inexplicable. We are forced to conclude that Islam itself is just so nutty as to undermine the humanity of the characters.

    The shots of home life for our main protagonist
    are particularly galling: a happy nuclear family, where
    wife and child endorse and encourage their father’s plans for martyrdom? How
    does this work, in the story? It
    doesn’t, at all. The only conclusion is that Islam is so insane, it creates
    such a complete environment, as to block out the local and the real (love for a
    child, families enjoying one another, the moments of tenderness that the film
    shows between them). An environment that hence denies, mind you, the
    violence that sociologically and anthropologically speaking tends to lead to
    this kind of radicalization, which means that it’s not the poorest who tend to
    become explicitly violent in the directing-violence-at-citizens way (Osama bL
    of course was a millionaire). Ghassan Hage, [“‘Comes a Time
    We Are All Enthusiasm’:  Understanding Palestinian Suicide Bombers in
    Times of Exighophobia,” Public Culture,
    15:1 (2003)] suggests that this subjectively experienced
    violence (in the form of abuse, humiliation, etc) is a common factor for
    suicide bombers. Hating stuff
    that one also enjoys is quite understandable and so the artistic task becomes
    to demonstrate that tension (disgust at the world multiplied because you also
    enjoy the disgust). It is abdicated entirely.

     

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for offering a different perspective on FOUR LIONS. I think the film’s presentation of Islam is a little bit more ambiguous than you do. For instance, the protagonist Omar has a brother who is shown to be a devout and nonviolent Muslim. This character is traditionally sexist, while the less devout and yet more ideologically violent Omar has an egalitarian relationship with his own wife. If there’s a joke here, it’s that the more “assimilated” and cosmopolitan Omar believes in violence to achieve his ends while the unassimilated, traditional Muslim brother repudiates violence. Here, I think there is the potential to read the domestic, suburban scene as a joke about our idea that assimilation of Western norms would also lead to peaceful tactics.Why should it? Perhaps in embracing violence, Omar more accurately reflects the values of his adopted country. 

    FOUR LIONS is a spin on the slapstick Ealing Studios comedies, and to the degree that it has a tragic dimension, it locates the tragedy not in Omar’s decision to become a terrorist, but in his choice to violate his personal code to manipulate his best friend into carrying out the bombing, against his conscience.  

    Ultimately, I don’t think the movie has much to say about Islam (or really even about terrorism).But I do think it avoids both theproblems of minstrelsy and of essentializing the characters’ actions to their religious faith.  

  • miri

    p.s. SBC is definitely not an Orthodox Jew. He was, I believe, raised Orthodox-ish – but is not now.

  • Anonymous

    A 2007 article in The Jewish Quarterly says Cohen is Orthodox and does not answer his cellphone on Shabbat.

    http://www.jewishquarterly.org/issuearchive/article521f.html?articleid=275

    And in 2010, Cohen married Isla Fisher after her lengthy conversion to Judaism. Fisher took a Hebrew name and says that the family is “quite observant.”

    http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/29736/sacha-baron-cohen-marries-isla-fisher

  • http://twitter.com/stephaniebarbeh stephaniebarbehammer

    fascinating discussion. Sasha Cohen is an important symptom of some kind of semiotic collapse in Jewish humor.  A couple of thoughts.  1. I wonder if we are looking at the break-down of a sort of Jewish comedic performativity that has a long tradition (aka Jews pretending to be a different racial minority).  With the full entrance of Jews into “whiteness” and into white privilege (an arrival that has arguably only happened since ww2 in this country), this burlesque-y speaking “as”/”for” the racialized other is no longer politically tenable. This is not to say that black face (or brown or yellow face) were ever “good” or even particularly progressive.  But it does seem that Sasha Cohen is looking back with a certain hysteria towards a practice that was valued by a white hegemony that did NOT regard Jews as white. 2. Equally if not more worrisome is the impression that I have that Sasha Cohen’s predominantly white — and I suspect often gentile — audience digs that nostalgia in a completely unself-reflective way.  Some of the tweets that you’ve resposted point to this kind of joyous return to “old-fashioned” racism.   The trajectory of his work from Ali G to this film is perhaps worth thinking about.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment. In fact, some of Cohen’s defenders online have tried to make claims that he isn’t “white,” but as you point out, wherever you fall on this question, he has white privilege. In an earlier draft, I tried to address this, but I think it’s pretty clear that if you look at his body of work– save for the Austrian Bruno– the characters are coded both as brown or black and as Muslim. The name “Ali,” whether the character is white or not certainly indicates that the character is meant to be perceived as nonwhite.

  • Avautuva

    Fisticuffs enough and opinions, but what will we eat tomorrow?
    (My friend is pushing all this year turnips to old chimney…)

  • HALIMACANDY215

    Thank you, a good analysis , i like some of the jokes and was disturbed by the necophilia with a black man, the issue of minstral is valid, because he does not offend  his own[ jewish- heritage or put his group in’ blackface ‘caricature..I am black woman, and i  found  that while watching  his film you have be conscious, but i enjoy  some  of the gags and but I keep it in context.. however, he is not a revolutionary, just someone who does big-pimping,..and i mean big-pimping!!

  • Cristiano

    Does anybody knows the name of the instrumental action song played when they just start fleeing the Harlens Mob?

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