Winter 2007, Vol. 9, No. 3

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From the Editor:
Faith and Values Down the Tube

The GOP's Religion Problem

There's a Muslim in the House

Onward Christian Soldiers

Status Kuo

Warsaw Loses an Archbishop

The Pope Takes a Dive

The Gospel According to Hugo

Borat's Religious Provocations



Borat's Religious Provocations
by Christine McCarthy McMorris









The producers at Fox Searchlight had the jitters on the eve of the November 3 release of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s first film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. They scaled back plans for a nationwide release to a cautious 800 theaters.

Sure, crass jokes about women, bathroom humor, and homosexuality may be de rigueur for way-popular “R” rated comedies like Jackass and Punk’d. But how would American audiences react to a clueless character from a historically Muslim country, who not only describes his Kazakhstan homeland’s woes as “economic, social and Jew,” but also mocks a Pentecostal revival and hoodwinks a busload of Christians into aiding his quest to kidnap Pamela Anderson?

By the time the weekend was over, any fears of a flop of Snakes on a Plane proportions had evaporated. Bruce Snyder, head of distribution at 20th Century Fox, told AP movie writer David Germaine on November 6: “The planets aligned, the moons aligned, the stars aligned, and everything came together perfectly for us on this weekend.”

In less astrological terms, Borat came in number one at the box office, taking in $26.4 million, and its release was immediately expanded to 2,500 screens. Moviegoers voted with their wallets, but by the end of film’s opening run, it was clear that Baron Cohen’s religious provocations had left a segment of the media—and possibly the movie industry—more than a little queasy.

Movie critics were first out of the gate, and the word was good. Online review tracker gave Borat a 90 percent rating, and virtually all of the reviews in mainstream newspapers and online magazines fell over themselves to praise the mockumentary of a Kazakh television reporter (Baron Cohen) in a cheerfully obscene road trip across America, finding plenty of real people along the way more than willing to let his anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic, and sexually over-the-top rants go unopposed (if not actually joining in).

A representative sampling of the critics’ raves: “The brilliance of Borat is that its comedy is as pitiless as its social satire” (Manohla Dargis, New York Times, November 3); “This is a film by an original and significant comic intelligence” (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, November 3); “Hilarious, purposefully offensive” (Bob Townsend, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 3); “[O]ne of the funniest and most pointed satires in years” (Stephanie Zacharek,

Virtually all of the reviewers were familiar with Baron Cohen’s cult hit, Da Ali D Show, which debuted on HBO in 2002. It featured three characters he first dreamed up in England (including Borat), who mercilessly ambush guests like Donald Trump and Patrick Buchanan (who was asked about Iraq’s ability to produce BLTs).

Reviewers warned that newbies to Baron Cohen’s smack-in-your-face humor might face a steep learning curve. Many mentioned the show’s most notorious sketch, in which Borat gets a bunch of locals in a Tucson bar to join in the refrain of a “Kazakh folk song”: “Throw the Jew down the well/ So my country can be free/ You must grab him by the horns/ Then we have a big par-tee.”     

Review after review pointed out that while the character of Borat was blatantly anti-Semitic, Baron Cohen himself was 1) a Cambridge-educated Brit, and 2) an observant Jew. As the New York Times’ Dargis herself put it, “[I]t seems instructive to note how most discussions of Borat, including the sympathetic and the suspicious, often circle over to the issue of Mr. Baron Cohen’s own identity. Commentators often imply that Borat wouldn’t be funny if Mr. Baron Cohen were not Jewish.”

While movie reviewers by and large gave Baron Cohen (once having been identified as Jewish) a “bigotry-free” pass, it’s worth considering what the world beyond the cineplex had to say about, for example, Borat touting his village’s annual “running of the Jew,” or asking a gun salesman “what is best gun to shoot Jews?”

Specifically Jewish reactions in the media were varied and muted. Abe Foxman’s Anti-Defamation League, never one to shun a fight, showed no more than polite concern in a September 28 statement. Widely quoted in the media after the film’s release, it warned that while Baron Cohen “uses humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Setmitism…the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke.”

The progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun ran an article by senior editor Jo Ellen Green Kaiser on its website  ( November 3 contending that “fundamentally, we need Borat. How else can we talk openly about the fact...that some Christians believe Jews and Muslims are the face of evil, if not through the shield of comedy?”

Borat’s international release November 13 found more box office magic and greater divergence of opinion. The film ranked number one or close to it across Western Europe (with highest grosses in the U.K. and Germany), Australia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Israel. In fact, a December 20 Global News Wire story posted on Britain’s Guardian Unlimited website reported that Israelis are roaring with laughter when “he’s supposed to be spouting Kazakh—Borat is actually speaking fluent Hebrew.” “In Israel,” the story continues, “Borat’s fans are clearly in on the fun.”

But they were not in on it in other parts of the Middle East, where, with the exception of Lebanon, the film was passed over for release. And while put-upon Kazakhstan passed up the chance to incur more ridicule, former colonial overlord Russia refused to certify Borat for distribution. Government spokesman Yury V. Vasyuchov, in a November 9 New York Times piece by Steven Lee Myers, explained that the first non-pornographic film to be banned for over 20 years “could be offensive to some nationalities and religions.”

Meanwhile, Baron Cohen finally stepped out of character (as well as his blue polyester suit) to talk about his creation’s bigotry in Neil Strauss’s November 14 cover story in Rolling Stone, “The Man Behind the Mustache.”

“By himself being anti-Semitic, [Borat] lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice, whether it’s anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism,” Baron Cohen explained. “I remember at the university there was this one major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw. And his quote was, ‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.’ I know it’s not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but I think it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.”

Not everyone, however, was convinced of the righteousness of Borat’s cause—especially a group of conservative Jewish pundits in the secular press.

The first volley came from New York Times columnist David Brooks. On November 16, Brooks called Baron Cohen one of the “culture war comedians” and slammed his characterization of Middle Americans as “racist, anti-Semitic idiots who can be blamelessly ridiculed.” Charles Krauthammer’s November 24 column in the Washington Post was blunter: “Whoaaaa. Does he really believe such rubbish?”

What bothered these commentators was its implicit attack on the ordinary Christian Americans Borat nudges into voicing his faux anti-Semitism.

“American Christians are the best friends of the Jews,” wrote Joshua Muravchik in the January issue of Commentary magazine. “If American anti-Semitism is so well hidden that it requires a Borat to ferret it out, why on earth would anyone wish to bring it to the surface to have its face slapped?” Writing in the December 27 issue of The American Spectator magazine, Ben Stein took the film directly to task for its “acute mockery of Christians.”

Stein was referring to a scene where Borat wanders into a Pentecostal revival, asks for help for his pain (the result of seeing his beloved Pamela Anderson perform in an X-rated video), and pretends to receive the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. Admitting that it “makes me very uneasy for a Jew like Sacha Cohen to explicitly mock Christ,” Stein asked, “Why isn’t anyone noticing?”

It was a good question. For the most part, mainstream journalists, engaged as they were in parsing the anti-Semitism, had no problem with Borat’s ridicule of Christian faith and practice. Not surprisingly, the evangelical media were a bit more sensitive.

On November 10, the American Family Association’s website posted a review by Marc Newton (“Repulsive Comedy Sells, But Can We Pay the Price?”) complaining about a scene in which Borat, back in his village, boasts, “We are Christians now.” The proof, Newton reported, was a new tradition of “crucifying a Jew while the neighborhood folks poke at the hanging man with pitchforks….Laughter was sparse in my Southern California screening, and not a few ‘boos’ were heard.”

Oddly enough, some evangelicals liked the revival scene. On James Dobson’s Focus on the Family watchdog entertainment website (, critic Marcus Yoars rejoiced that “maybe not since The Apostle have I witnessed onscreen such a lengthy depiction of God’s transforming power.” The wind, as they say, bloweth where it listeth.

By contrast, some members of the United Pentecostal Church (UPCI), whose revival it was, directed their wrath not at Baron Cohen but toward their own spiritual leaders. “How could it be that one of the UPCI’s premier, very much in demand evangelists (Greg Godwin) and another strong very conservative voice (Jason Dillon)... be so incredibly clueless as to who was among them?” wrote one woman in a posting on the lively forum. “None of those ‘big-timers’ could even tell that Borat wasn’t even authentically speaking in tongues!”

By March, Borat was a huge financial and critical success, to the tune of a $248 million worldwide box office (from an $18 million budget) and resulted in a Best Comedy Actor award for Baron Cohen at the Golden Globes. The March release of the DVD was an instant top seller, including in Kazakhstan, where it immediately shot to number one.

But enough lingering unease in the media at Baron Cohen’s cinematic provocation may have resulted in the Academy Awards denying Borat its Best Adapted Screenplay Award and Baron Cohen his chance to appear (in character) as a presenter.

Was the Academy’s public nose-holding caused by dislike of Borat’s over-the-top anti-Semitism or his creator’s ridicule of Christian believers? Or by the suspicion that Baron Cohen was calling out an arrogant and bigoted America?

In an opening day review in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, John Belfuss predicted that Baron Cohen’s “brilliantly conceived trick mirror of a movie” would inject a certain moral queasiness in Americans who pride themselves in being “niiice.”

“To paraphrase a great possum: We have met the racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic crazy Kazakh, and he is us.”  


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