At his lowest point in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Kazakh journalist finds himself with nowhere left to turn. He’s alone in America, abandoned by his daughter, and facing execution if he returns home without gifting her to one of the most powerful men in the U.S. He’s ready to end it all, but without even the money to buy a gun, he has to come up with an alternate plan: head to a nearby synagogue and “wait for the next mass shooting.”
Even for the Borat series, whose first movie featured an annual festival in which grotesquely caricatured anti-Semitic puppets chase hapless villagers down the street to rowdy applause, it’s a spectacularly dark joke, one that almost knocked the wind out of me. In 2005, Baron Cohen recently told the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, it took a character like Borat—an absurd extrapolation of a backward foreigner—to get people to “reveal their inner prejudices.” But in 2020, those prejudices have become badges of honor. Donald Trump and his supporters have embraced the historically anti-Semitic tropes of railing against media conspiracy and the “global elites,” and the QAnon conspiracy that has spread like a plague across the internet—and that Trump will turn himself in knots to avoid denouncing—is based around what amounts to a reskinned version of the blood libel. The last makes only a brief cameo in the first Borat—the “Running of the Jew” sequence features a female puppet wielding a meat cleaver—but it comes to the fore in the sequel, as Borat spends five days quarantined with Washington state conspiracists who explain how Bill and Hillary Clinton harvest adrenochrome from the bodies of terrified children to give themselves immortality.
The mercurial comic has shifted shapes many times over the years, but one constant in Baron Cohen’s work is the specter of anti-Jewish hatred. Before a screening of Borat in 2006, he told the audience that the Kazakh censors had nearly banned the movie because of anti-Semitism—but “then they decided there was just enough.” In 2012, he gave a press conference for The Dictator as the movie’s fictional Middle Eastern despot and addressed the assembled reporters as “devils of the Zionist media.” And in the new Borat, he reveals that a modernized Kazakhstan now observes Holocaust Remembrance Day, but only to celebrate the country’s role in making it happen. (Perhaps wary that the first movie spread disinformation about a nation many Americans know nothing about, the new one lists its location as “Kazakhstan,” in quotation marks.)
Baron Cohen’s role has less frequently been to expose hardcore bigotry—a practice that does not lend itself to humorous results—than to shine a light on apparently normal people’s indifference to it. On Da Ali G Show, which first introduced the Borat character, he coaxed the crowd at a Tucson, Arizona, honky-tonk to lustily sing along to a song about murdering Jews, and in the new movie, a Spartanburg, South Carolina, baker obligingly writes an anti-Semitic alt-right slogan on a chocolate cake, embellishing it with smiley faces.
Critics at the Anti-Defamation League and elsewhere argued that while Baron Cohen’s intent to mock anti-Semitism while embodying it was clear to them, it might not be to everyone, and his approach was at best ineffectual, at worst irresponsible. And Baron Cohen takes those charges seriously enough that on the rare occasions when he breaks character and speaks publicly as himself, he has used the opportunity to clarify his stance. In 2006, he told Rolling Stone that he keeps kosher and honors the Jewish Sabbath, and last year, he gave his first speech while accepting the ADL’s International Leadership Award, warning of the role social media giants play in the spread of Holocaust denial.
In the new Borat, the character hits his low when he encounters a Facebook page asserting that the Holocaust never happened—robbing his country of what he sees as its proudest achievement. And that’s what brings him to the synagogue, disguised as what, in his mind, is “a typical Jew”: 8-inch nose, a cartoon sack of money, and a puppet with a sign reading “MEDIA.” It’s a parallel to the scene in the first Borat where a despondent Borat stumbles into a Pentecostal revival, but instead of the movie gawking at the specter of sweaty Southerners speaking in tongues, his entry into Marietta, Georgia’s Kol Emeth Temple is as close to respectful as the series can get. Baron Cohen feigns fear at the sight of two elderly women in the synagogue’s pews, but rather than responding with horror or anger, they reach out to him, subverting whatever prank this idiotically costumed stranger might have in mind. A moment later, they’re all eating soup together.
The woman who sets Borat straight is a Holocaust survivor named Judith Dim Evans. The movie ends with a dedication to her and a link to a tribute website assembled with the help of her family. But another part of her family is suing the film on behalf of Evans’ estate (she died earlier this year), demanding that the footage be removed from the film. The suit claims that the scene is designed to “mock the Holocaust and Jewish culture,” but unidentified sources told the trade publication Deadline that Baron Cohen actually stopped filming to inform her of the nature of the project, which would explain the hard cut from quizzical encounter to chicken noodle klatch. The apparently dueling familial factions illustrate the fine line Baron Cohen is walking, pushing to the edge of absurdity a strain of belief whose real-world manifestations are already unbelievable. How can you forge a more ludicrous version of a worldview that believes in a satanic child-trafficking conspiracy whose most valiant enemy is Donald Trump? Instead, Baron Cohen pulls back, allowing viewers to see just a sliver of heart on his ludicrously costumed sleeve.
In truth, Baron Cohen has had difficulty adapting his brand of gotcha comedy to a world in which Rudy Giuliani will peddle coronavirus conspiracy theories without needing to be tricked into it. It’s difficult to premise your method on getting people to expose themselves when those people already do it on the regular and their supporters just laugh it off. The Borat sequel’s best moments are when it turns from mockumentary to straight-up doc, finding Americans who look past Borat’s bushy mustache and try to connect with the human behind it.