Sacha Baren Cohen is a Jewish man who has created one of the most immediately recognizable–and popular–anti-semitic characters in the world.
Borat, Cohen’s Kazakhstani alter-ego, was popularized last year after the remarkable success of his eponymous movie, and some critics have been very vocal in opposing the comedian’s sense of humor.
That’s probably an understandable reaction at first, when considering that the character frequently talks of beating gypsies and refers to blacks as “chocolate-faces,” and, of course, his participation in the “Running of the Jew” festival, featuring a giant Hasidic caricature chasing children in the streets of Kazakhstan, stopping only to lay a “jew-egg.”
However, Cohen has frequently stated that the racist ramblings of Borat are intended to expose racism by contrast, and most viewers are immediately able to distinguish the difference.
Real racism is given a lot of time in Borat’s film, shown in the deep south of America, where racist cowboys and litigious college kids freely express their frustration with homosexuality, race, and gender roles. Cohen stays out of the way in these types of scenes, occasionally goading racists on with obviously satirical statements (at least to anyone who knows that there’s a joke going on). In one of his short segments from the Ali G show, Borat goes hunting with a redneck who states that the Jews control all of the money, and that Hitler might have had the right idea. The deeply religious Cohen is dormant as Borat nods in approval, right before permanently damaging his relationship with the redneck by stripping completely nude.
That’s the great thing about Borat; he’s utterly offensive to everyone, American racists included. By serving as an example of the most absolutely ludicrous bigot imaginable and by conversely finding ways to make even the most hard-line racists troubled by his statements, he’s almost vengeful, and a great satirical tool for a country that isn’t very forward in racial dialog.
And through his immediately likable enthusiasm, Borat’s warm yet misguided character also serves as a lesson that racists are, in fact, also human, and are subject to the same fears and desires as any of us. He’s also capable of change and acceptance, and at heart a genuinely good person raised in a harsh–albeit fictional–world.
Whether the audiences are laughing at a comedic foil to real racism or the actual racist statements themselves is not possible to say, at least fully, but any audience that earnestly believes the hyperbole is probably apt to find racism in pretty much anything. Borat teaches through a flawed example, and his form of “racism” is far more empathetic and even wise than it is exploitative.