Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / IMDb

“High Five!”: Borat (Just Barely) Holds Up in 2020

This article contains spoilers for ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.’

Just in time for the election, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm made its small-screen debut on Amazon Prime Video on October 23rd. The long-awaited sequel’s full title, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, provides a solid synopsis. 

This time around, Borat—portrayed by the film’s producer, Sacha Baron Cohen—must return to America to repair the damage he caused to Kazakhstan’s reputation while making the first movie. When the intended bribe, “Johnny the Monkey,” dies in transit, Borat attempts instead to give his caged daughter, Tutar (played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova), to “America’s most famous ladies man–Michael Pence.” 

Naturally, the plan goes terribly wrong. Eventually, Borat and Tutar’s focus shifts to the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, an effort that culminates with an interview between Tutar and Giuliani in a private hotel room. In the scene, which has received widespread media coverage, including a reference in SNL’s cold open, Giuliani appears to lie down and put his hand down his pants in a sexually suggestive way. While newsworthy alone, Subsequent Moviefilm doesn’t stop there.

Whereas the first film sent Borat on a road trip across the country, interacting with Americans from various walks of life, the sequel is decidedly focused on Trump’s America. Virtually the only two instances of participants responding admirably to Borat’s provocations were also the only two instances of interaction with members of non-Trump-leaning demographics. The first is with an African-American babysitter who encourages Tutar to break free from her father’s control. The second is with two elderly Jewish women, at least one of whom says that she is a Holocaust survivor, who respond compassionately to Borat when he enters their synagogue wearing a grotesquely anti-Semitic costume. 

In the past, Sacha Baron Cohen has not shied away from ridiculing both liberals and conservatives, but the attention he gives to Republicans in this film, especially in the context of the two aforementioned exceptions and the movie’s proximity to the election, reveals a clear motive to push American voters away from Trump. One of the most unexpected facets of this examination came when Borat befriended two conspiracy theorists. 

“And what I actually wanted to do was to reveal that underneath all the hatred and underneath all the division, we are actually not all that far apart, we are good people, people who, you know, you would despise normally, and from the other side, and I tried to get people from both sides, you know, I wanted to show the humanity,” explained Cohen in an interview on Good Morning America. “There were a couple of QAnon conspiracy theorists that I lived with, who actually are good people, who just have adopted some very negative conspiracy theories that are being propagated by social media and the Trump presidency.”

It is true that not all believers in QAnon are bad people. The two believers allowed Cohen, a complete stranger, to live with them when he said he had nowhere else to go, and helped him find his daughter, all while putting up with his bizarre antics. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that most who watch the movie would walk away feeling optimistic. These few instances of compassion are overshadowed by transgressions that should not be so easily excused. 

While there are certainly greater forces at play manipulating the American people, they did not appear out of thin air. The crucial issue that remains is that Trump and the culture surrounding him have attained prominence because they appeal to the pre-existing hatred at the heart of his constituency. 

At a pro-Second Amendment rights rally in Olympia, Washington, Borat, pretending to be a singer named “Country Steve,” receives positive reactions from attendees when he sings about injecting Anthony Fauci with the “Wuhan flu,” chopping up journalists “like the Saudis do,” and gassing scientists “like the Germans do.” While it is unclear whether or not they fully grasp the references in the moment, the apparent truth is that these folks harbor violent sentiments towards their perceived political enemies. The country is changing demographically, and many white Americans resent that fact. Hatred is not the mark of political manipulation. It was here before Trump, and it will be here even after he’s gone.

In the aftermath of the film’s release, it has received praise as an effective satire, but some on the left have taken issue with it for the same reason. The controversy raises the difficult question of what constitutes good satire. The genre is meant to make light of serious political issues, which is why it is unavoidably offensive to some. For that reason, the question is not whether or not Borat is offensive (it absolutely is), but whether or not it is offensive in all the right ways. If satire’s true utility is its ability to expose abuses of power, then Borat does so masterfully. Cohen takes shots at every level of Trump’s America; he makes their fanaticism plain for all to see. 

However, it is not Cohen’s target that has raised controversy, but rather his chosen delivery method. Wrapped up in his satire of America is Borat’s home country of Kazakhstan. Of course, Kazakhstan has issues of its own that are ripe for satire, like any other country, but no one could argue that Cohen is attempting to evince some insidious truth about the young nation. The result of using Kazakhstan as a prop is all of satire’s characteristic offensiveness, with none of its useful political commentaries.

Borat is a relic from a different time in America. These days, most people are more sensitive to issues of diversity and representation in media, meaning we expect a little more nuance from satire. Luckily for Borat, he had already entered our collective imaginations years ago and thus is easier to accept in the present. While we’re all laughing at racists making fools of themselves on camera, we are also laughing at Borat, a cocktail of stereotypes used by westerners for centuries to ridicule foreigners; Borat’s superstition, broken-English, brashness, lewdness, chauvinism, and general foolishness are all part of the joke, not just props in its delivery. Herein lies the irony: while Borat exposes its participants’ ingrained bigotry, it does the same of its audience. One might even argue that such a character is perfectly suited for exposing American bigotry.

Cohen has said that his goal in the first Borat film was to expose America’s inner racism, and he did so by creating a character whose bigotry was on full display in order to coax the same out of those with whom he interacts. It worked in 2006, and it works better than ever today, as Cohen explained in his GMA interview: “At that time, people were shocked that there was an underbelly of hatred and racism. Now, it’s overt, and, you know, you hear those words being projected by the president of the most powerful country in the world.”

But what does Kazakhstan have to do with American racism? Absolutely nothing. Borat, Cohen’s prototypical Kazakh, speaks in Hebrew, save for two Polish phrases (anglicized as “jagshemash” and “chenqui”), and the shooting location for Borat’s village is in Romania. Cohen uses Kazakhstan as an arbitrary canvas to paint an image of vague foreignness, which is concerning in itself. Because most Americans know almost nothing about Kazakhstan, outside of Cohen’s depiction, Borat is Kazakhstan to many people. 

However, its lack of relevance to America’s present issues arguably lowers the stakes when it comes to inadvertently inciting bigotry against Kazakhs. America’s Kazakh population is minuscule, and relations between the two countries are mundane. When choosing a nationality to portray as a prop (always a risky endeavor, by the way), it is best to choose one without an existing groundwork of prejudice directed towards it that could be aggravated, and Kazakhstan fits the bill. Of course, the movie has an audience outside of America as well, but Kazakhstan remains uncontroversial to a global audience. Hate crimes aren’t being committed against Kazakhs, and no one is calling for their deportation. Sure, Kazakhstan catches some stray rounds from Cohen’s barrage on America, but they appear to be taking the attention in stride.

After the movie’s release, Kazakhstan’s tourism board announced that they were adopting one of Borat’s catch-phrases, “very nice,” as an official slogan. After generally negative reactions to the first film back in 2006, Kazakhstan is at least partially ready to adopt the old adage about bad publicity.

None of this is to say that Cohen’s treatment of the country is entirely unproblematic. No matter how you slice it, from the perspective of many Kazakhs, the movie unfairly and harshly ridicules their country and its people. Further still, it propagates harmful stereotypes about eastern European and central Asian countries at large (not to mention Borat’s rampant anti-Semitism). 

Alas, such is the nature of satire. The reason why it can be so effective is the same reason why it can be so offensive. There is a fine line between satire and harassment, one that always ought to be kept in mind. But so long as the target needs to be knocked down a peg and ‘collateral damage’ can be limited, it serves us to step out of the way and let comedians show us what they can. While not to the taste of some, one could argue that we’re better off having John Oliver-s, Dave Chappelle-s, and, yes, even Sacha Baron Cohen-s on our side because they’re the ones who throw some of the hardest punches.

Speaking of hard punches, a video posted by Borat’s official Twitter account on the day of the movie’s release shows Bakalova in character as Tutar roaming the White House with a journalist for the pro-Trump media outlet OAN, and at an indoor event featuring the president. One can only wonder that if Bakalova was able to so easily infiltrate a prominent right-wing news outlet with access to the White House and the president’s inner circle, what might a hostile foreign entity be able to accomplish with greater resources? 

With such terrifying precision, Borat manages in just over 90 minutes to reveal the rot at every level of the Trump ecosystem, from pro-Second Amendment protesters to Southerners at a debutante ball, to alt-right media, to CPAC attendees, all the way to the president’s closest allies. As if the American people needed any more evidence that Trumpism is dangerous, Borat has swooped in just before the election to rattle our figurative cages one last time. The message is clear and simple: none of this is normal; we got ourselves into this mess, and it’s about time we get ourselves out.