Borat is back. Judging by the trailer and the talk around it, the new film is set in the same tone and flavour as the first. The question is: Does the world really need another Borat? Is Borat II funny or insulting?
Much like the previous installment, 2020’s Borat is a comedy—told loosely through the satirical medium of the mockumentary—that aims to expose prejudices and hypocrisies of certain segments of the American population. But like its predecessor, the film’s subtext hints at some possible prejudices by Sacha Baron Cohen himself.
As I wrote many years ago about the first Borat movie, by choosing to have his title character hail from a real—not widely known—nation (Kazakhstan), Sacha Baron Cohen ends up stereotyping an entire country and culture. While pro-Trump, anti-Covid mask Americans may be the subject/target of the latest film, it is the backwards Borat that is the ultimate buffoon, and butt of all jokes. Baron Cohen may claim that “it’s just comedy,” but given the current climate of increased cultural awareness and sensitivity, it would be surprising if he gets away with it as easily this time around.
While people may laugh at his portrayal of pro-Trump, Covid denying Americans (white “rednecks” seem to still be fair game in the current politically correct climate) there’s still the issue of the broader connotations of film and the Borat character: That Kazakhs are strange, bigoted and backwards. Writing for BBC in 2016, Yerlan Askarbekov explains that while many Kazakhs found the first Borat film funny, many—especially students in the west—were angry at the way it portrayed Kazakhstan to outsiders:
“Maybe the most angry Kazakhs in 2006 were our students in the UK and US. They understood the movie, but their non-Kazakh peers on campus did not. Their fellow students were sure that the movie showed the real Kazakhstan.”[i]
With respect to Cohen’s portrayal of the American public in his Borat films, my main observation is that the comedy is not that funny. I don’t mind “offensive” comedy when it’s actually funny. I’m much more likely to be “offended” by bad comedy than cultural stereotypes. And in the case of Borat the comedy is not that great. While I found much of Da Ali G show quite funny, the comedy in Borat is not subtle, with very little nuance or complexity. It feels almost too easy. Perhaps that is Baron Cohen’s intention. In going camp, Baron Cohen’s Borat character implicitly conflates segments of the US population with “backwards rural Kazakhs.” In doing so, the film insults certain segments of the US population by implicitly comparing them to the other, and main, group the film insults: Kazakhs
Whatever its comedic intention, rather than shed light on present-day US culture, the new Borat film simply relies on clichés of it for cheap and easy laughs. And it does this while insulting an entire country in the process. Is this something people (and Kazakhs in particular) need or want in 2020?