Debates have been swirling in the media about undertones of racism in Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film ‘The Dictator’. Is Baron Cohen mocking Arab and Muslim society or simply addressing the dirty politics that have gone into supporting and then toppling autocratic regimes across the Middle East?
Last night, after months of anticipation and a sickening overdose of YouTube clips and highly publicized, self-adoring interviews featuring Sacha Baron Cohen’s newest alter-ego, General Aladeen of Wadiya, I jumped on the fortunate invitation to see the British comedic idol’s latest film, ‘The Dictator’. Not only was it a chance for a night of heavy and at times uncomfortable laughter, but also an opportunity to critique Baron Cohen’s performance in a scripted film instead of his typical mockumentary humorist style (i.e Borat and Bruno).
Unfortunately, because of the ongoing debates across both news and social media outlets, I was unable to wholeheartedly relax and enjoy Baron Cohen’s comic ingenuity – something I discovered in his first season of The Ali G Show – without letting the critically analytical side of me address the issue of whether the portrayal of General Aladeen and his aloof mannerisms is a culturally insensitive knock against Arab and Muslim society or just a hilarious mockery of the quasi-insane personality traits and concocted portraits that have defined a number of Middle East despots and to some extent other autocrat-lunies across the globe (see Aladeen’s dedication to Kim Jong Il, the sly references to Robert Mugabe, and even addressing Russian cronyism while not shying away from plenty of jokes about China’s “democratic reforms”).
Despite my own personal issues in not being able to fully kick-back and leave politics aside, it was immediately clear to me that those who have attempted to pull the enlightened card of moral superiority in the name of cultural sensitivity are just as inane and self-involved as the picture painted of General Aladeen by Baron Cohen himself. As is congruent with his other films, Baron Cohen sticks to the role of exposing the farce of political-correctness in the United States while repeatedly emphasizing the idea that the West is responsible for the Caligulaesque personalities defined by a number of megalomanic dictators through years of illegitimate support based on foreign, national economic interests and pure power politics.
In all off Baron Cohen’s roles, he mocks the exaggerated stereotypes thrust upon different ethnic and minority groups – Jews in ‘Borat’, Gays in ‘Bruno’, Arabs in ‘The Dictator’ – while often using Americans as a tool to illustrate how these stereotypes still radiate within the majority of society.
So why is it in particular that his role in ‘The Dictator’ has gotten particular attention from those who claim to be the voice of “true liberalism” and ethno-cultural respect? Is it because Baron Cohen is a Jew himself and is poking fun at stereotypes of Arab-Islamo society and its leaders? Is it because General Aladeen is full of commentary about American pseudo-hippies and their misguided representation of what it means to be a real “leftist” – those same people who blame America for all the injustices in the Arab world? Or is it because those same critics are uncomfortable that Baron Cohen is correct about the current upheaval in the Middle East while leftist policy wonks and journalists insist that the Arab Spring will bring about true democratic change, human rights, and peace to the entire region? This goes without mentioning Baron Cohen’s blatant criticism of the West being completely duped by the Iranian regime as the Ayatollahs sit back, chuckle and continue to deny that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons, knowing that a military strike is highly unlikely even as Iran paces itself to its first sunrise with nukes.
For those of the “moral high-ground” who have criticized this movie to the nth degree as well as American interventionalist policies in the Middle East – something to which with I have often heavily criticized in the past – The Dictator’s mocking tone against those who believe Iran is not trying to arm itself with nuclear capabilities is infuriating because ultimately, they know Baron Cohen is right, and that their idealist appeasement strategies are complete hogwash and toe the line with their non stop apologist rhetoric for the decades-long atrocities that have been going on in the region.
‘The Dictator’ is an oddly brilliant commentary about the troubling power (and energy) politics that often dictate global policy. And although it addresses certain stereotypes about Arab society, the criticism is purely set against the Westerners that continue to project those stereotypes and not on Arab culture itself. More telling however is the film’s critique of elitist liberal culture in the United States and the way that sector of society often gives a free pass to Arab and Islamofascist culture for fear of being labeled as culturally insensitive and bigoted. As Arab apologists for past American endeavors and failures in the Middle East continue to berate this film as a racist critique on Arab society, I ask that you not be drawn into the same debate that I was and simply enjoy the movie for what it is – 83 minutes of comedic brilliance with a garnish of sometimes crude and unusual humor.
This piece originally appeared in The Times of Israel