‘Borat 2’ misses the mark because it perpetuates cruel stereotypes and is a vehicle for mockery

  • In an op-ed, Eastern European political scientist Jasmin Mujanović writes that "Borat 2" misses the mark and is difficult to watch.
  • Filmmaker Sacha Baron Cohen "is clearly a supremely talented satirist and character actor," he writes. "[But] whatever comment the franchise makes on American ignorance and bigotry, its biggest effect is in its cruel portrayals of Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and even Eastern Europe."
  • "'Borat' is a movie that punches down."
  • "Those who see these depictions as satire may feel they are in on the joke, but a far larger portion of the audience is laughing at Cohen's portrayals of 'Kazakhstan.'"
  • In "Borat 2," currently streaming on Amazon, Baron Cohen portrays a fictional Kazakh journalist, who wants to offer his daughter to Vice President Mike Pence as a gift from his native country.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

The sight of former New York City mayor and President Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani with his hands down his pants, sprawled on a hotel bed, in front of (what appears to be a) teenage seductress is surely one of the most bizarre — and disturbing — vignettes in recent American public life.

The scene is already the most (in)famous bit of footage from actor and producer Sasha Baron Cohen's "Borat" sequel. Officially titled "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," the film is Cohen's follow-up to his successful 2006 mockumentary about Borat Sagdiyev, a fictional Kazakhstani journalist, played by Baron Cohen, who travels to "US and A" to make a documentary about life in what he imagines to be the most spectacular place on Earth.

While both films are driven by Borat's outrageous antics as an oafish, racist, and sexist ignoramus, struggling to make sense of everything from indoor plumbing to women's suffrage, fans argue the comedy is ultimately in Baron Cohen's adroit skill in exposing the prejudices and bigotry of his (usually) unwitting interlocutors. Both films attempt to cast Borat as a kind of mirror for American ignorance, where the actual villain is not the provincial Kazakh, but his hosts, who easily reveal their own reactionary tendencies through only the slightest nudge.

'Borat 2' is difficult to watch because it still perpetuates stereotypes in its portrayal of Kazakhstan and Eastern Europe

A scene in "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm," streaming on Amazon.
Amazon Studios

Baron Cohen is clearly a supremely talented satirist and character actor. And his recent acceptance speech on the growing threat of militant anti-Semitism and far-right sectarianism in the West to a conference of the Anti-Defamation League have also shown him to be a thoughtful and socially-conscious artist.

But even in granting Baron Cohen wide artistic license, the "Borat" films make for difficult viewing. Because whatever comment the franchise makes on American ignorance and bigotry, its biggest effect is in its cruel portrayals of Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and even Eastern Europe — with Glod, Romania, a predominately Romani village, serving as the location for Borat's fictionalized Kazakhstan. The films also help popularize these stereotypes among its, almost entirely, Western audience.

In short, for all its airs to the contrary, "Borat" is a movie that punches down.

In an attempt to expose American prejudices about the "savage East" and the country's perceived drift towards illiberalism, Baron Cohen has actually helped repopularize an Orientalist view of what some still generically refer to as "the former communist states." His work, therefore, fails as the critical cinema it purports to be.

While the film is doubtlessly a satire of US politics, it is just as much a vehicle for the mockery of Kazakhstan and its people. Because the country that is (not actually) depicted in the film is almost entirely alien to most Americans, Baron Cohen becomes the architect of its popular image in the West. And that image is cast in brownface. 

As Kazakhstani scholar Aizada Arystanbek argued, "[if] Cohen's sole purpose was to mock Americans … [why] didn't [he] simply make up a country for Borat."

"Opting for a real country must have been a strategic choice," she noted on openDemocracy, adding that such a decision is "the product of an environment that exists in the [Western] film industry, which allows its creators…to use and abuse other cultures for their own purposes."

It's actually Romania depicted in 'Borat 2,' not Kazakhstan, and the film marginalizes an already marginalized group

A scene from "Borat 2."
Amazon Studios

Borat's fictional "Kazakhstan" not only uses Romania as its backdrop, it is Romani people and culture — especially music — that are the primary source material for the franchise's characterization of Kazakhstan as a land of barbarism.

The Romani community in the US is small and well-integrated. But in most of Europe, the Romani are a severely marginalized group. Despite numbering in the millions, the vast majority of Romani, especially in Eastern Europe, live in crippling poverty, where they are the frequent targets of state and vigilante violence. Anti-Romani pogroms have continued into the 21st century, and the community has been the target of familiar racist persecution during the pandemic too.

By trafficking in centuries-old anti-Romani tropes and imagery in his films, while also liberally borrowing from various anti-Muslim themes, Cohen gives his audience license to indulge in these sentiments too — whether they fully understand who or what they are laughing at or not. Those who see these depictions as satire may feel they are in on the joke but, doubtlessly, a far larger portion of the audience is laughing at Cohen's portrayals of "Kazakhstan."

As comedian Hari Kondabolu has noted in his 2017 documentary "The Problem with Apu," characters like Borat, or in Kondabolu's case "The Simpsons" character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, become in the real-world cudgels to re-enforce existing racist power structures and power dynamics. Because who tells jokes, and how they are told, has always been a question of power. This is something Black, brown, and Jewish comedians, like Baron Cohen, have recognized (and played with) for decades.

Accordingly, the issue with "Borat 2" is not that it's "offensive" — comedy almost always is to someone, somewhere. Nor should the intent be to "cancel" Baron Cohen. The matter is altogether more straightforward: Baron Cohen is clearly of the belief that comedy is a tool to be used to afflict the comfortable. That is an enviable objective, but only if one does not further stigmatize those who are already afflicted.

Sadly, that is just what "Borat 2" and Baron Cohen do.

Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist and the co-host of the podcast "Sarajevo Calling."

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