Content warning: This article includes references to homophobia, Islamophobia, pedophilia, incest and rape
The original “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” was released in the uneventful year of 2006. Unrest with the war on terror and disapproval of President George Bush may have been on the rise, but American political engagement was generally dissociated, a far cry from the intense polarization we see today.
In that moment, Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat,” a massive, politically charged prank, was original and subversive.
Borat did not directly ask Americans what they thought or felt. Instead, he gave them a platform to sympathize with a multitude of vile, prejudiced beliefs and then coaxed bigotry out of them. Borat’s trap exposed the hatred at the heart of American cultural sentiment rather than mock the explosive political rhetoric of those with a large platform.
When Borat attends a rodeo, for example, by performing the role of a culturally confused foreigner, he tricks the rodeo’s manager into making alarmingly violent homophobic comments. Borat gleefully explains that, in his country, LGBTQ+ people are routinely imprisoned and executed, to which the manager responds, “Take ‘em out and hang em. That’s what we’re trying to get done here.”
Borat’s scheme now seems outdated, or at least under-informed.
Borat forgot its audience
In “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” Baron Cohen shifts his target from the everyday American to those with a prominent political platform. For the most part, he now focuses his energy on a few key political figures: namely, Vice President Mike Pence and Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump's attorney and former New York City mayor.
The latter was the subject of the film’s successful marketing campaign. The film appears to reveal Giuliani inappropriately touching himself in the presence of actress Maria Bakalova, who plays a young journalist for the purpose of the prank.
Giuliani denies the legitimacy of the film’s interpretation of events, calling them a “complete fabrication.” Regardless, the film wants this supposed expose to be its biggest achievement. It’s a prank-to-end-all-pranks, the ultimate take-down of Trump’s conservative establishment, revealing the sexual predators in positions of influence and power.
In framing this moment as the ultimate indictment of conservatism, the essence of Baron Cohen’s experiment dies. By attacking a conservative political figure’s character, he joins the ranks of mainstream liberal political commentary, led by the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, that is disconnected, gratuitous and ultimately completely ineffectual.
It’s hardly taboo or surprising to see racist and nationalist sentiment in 2020. In fact, often all it takes is a few moments browsing your uncle’s Facebook page. My own neighbor, in 2017, put up yard signs that read, “Islam is the religion of evil.” With the accelerating rise of white supremacist groups, Americans are largely desensitized to neo-Nazi rhetoric.
It becomes a question of proximity, and it's the reason this Borat fails where the first succeeded. The first Borat revealed the bigotry in everyday Americans, those you were likely to encounter in everyday life. That made it real and disturbing to its audience. This Borat aims for those in positions of power but forgets who its audience is.
Is it pointless to expose our nation’s leaders as misogynists and predators? No, of course not. It’s a worthwhile and respectable pursuit. But, in a moment when the go-to conservative defense is to cry fake news, Borat’s Giuliani prank does not functionally expose anything.
Conservatives and their sympathizers will readily believe the prank was a fabrication and call it a day, while liberals will likely allow their criticism of the right to rely only on flimsy accusations of individual character, rather than a substantial critique of their policy and style of governance. Neither will effectively work to curtail bigoted attitudes in American communities.
What made the ambitious schemes alarming
Luckily, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” does not completely forget its roots. One scene that carries enormous shock value takes place at a pro-life women’s health center. Baron Cohen and Bakalova, posing as father and daughter, cleverly convince a Christian pastor that Borat has molested and impregnated his own child, and appear to request an abortion.
In response, the pastor claims that “it really doesn’t matter how we got to this moment,” and “God is the one who creates life, and God doesn’t make accidents.”
In contrast to the Giuliani scene, this prank is meaningful and shocking because it reveals a cultural sentiment that has real repercussions in the average American’s life. The women’s health center in question appears to be in a working-class neighborhood and is not clearly signified as a religious or pro-life institution.
If a pro-life pastor is willing to say, on camera, that God’s plan involves incest and statutory rape, then what will he say in the comfort of his own home? How will he treat the other victims of sexual violence he encounters in his life? How many more Americans in positions of local authority and influence share his beliefs?
Even in a political climate that empowers bigoted rhetoric from the top-down, this very real exposure of institutionalized conservative sentiment is alarming, precisely because it's situated in a real American small town. This is not a Republican politician's personal antics, this is a widespread belief system, and it could easily affect you or someone you love.
If “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” focused on this type of content, it could be as culturally massive today as it was in 2006. But instead, by obsessing over Giuliani and the Republican establishment, Baron Cohen’s ambitious scheme loses the unique perspective that made it shocking and critically illuminating in the first place.