Now 24 hours past seeing Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan on opening day, I'm sure that I'm going to write a glowing review of this movie. It is an outstanding and fascinating piece of art which is very funny, and works really well on several levels. Oh, it's gonna be a heck of a review.
But this isn't going to be it. Here, I want to zero in on just one specific aspect: How the unwitting Americans came out. What I saw on the screen doesn't seem to quite jibe with what I'm reading in many stories about it. I keep reading that Cohen made fools of the Americans, setting them up to expose their dark sides, their racism and homophobia, etc. For example, Entertainment Weekly says "the people Borat talks to become the symbolic heart of America – a place where intolerance is worn, increasingly, with pride." But that's mostly not what actually showed up on the screen, by my best instant analysis.
That does seem to be what the Jewish Sacha Baron Cohen cleverly intended when he went undercover as Borat. The whole design of the Cohen approach is to throw extreme social curveballs engineered to offer his dupes every opportunity to make bigoted Neanderthal level comments, encouraging such things with his own cheerful expressions of extreme bigotry. It would appear that Cohen intended to slice and dice cheap American patriotism and deep-seated bigotry, or some such.
But in the actual practice, the Americans he tricked into being in his film mostly acquitted themselves very well. None of these Americans seemed malicious or vicious, or even hateful. They were all pretty nice, and very open hearted.
Probably the Americans I would judge the worst in this film were the feminists. They had agreed to an interview, and didn't react very well when Borat insisted that Kazakhi scientists had proved that women have little brains like squirrels. The girls got a little indignant and huffed off mid-interview. This would be a misdemeanor offense at worst, but besides being humorless they were perhaps unnecessarily rude to a guest. That's about the worst treatment he got from anyone in the film.
The only overt hostility was mostly from the opening street scenes in New York, but was still measured and reasonable. Borat went down the street aggressively trying to give friendly kisses to random men. Look, if a fully adult man who you've never seen before shows up with a cameraman and tries to lay his lips on you, then he's asking to get bitch slapped. But in fact, about the worst Borat got was a suggestion or two that he should consider having sex with himself. That seems totally proportionate to the calculated and uninvited touching.
As much as anything, Cohen was pushing buttons for homophobia throughout the movie, with Borat's aggressive male intimacy tactics. But none of the American men freaked out or called him "faggot" or anything. The driving instructor offered the most explicit explanation that would describe the reactions of most of the men he went kissing on, who graciously accepted his kissing with something like "I'm not used to that, but that's fine."
I'd rate the feminists' reaction the worst of the Americans as they were basically the only ones really even marginally rude to Borat, but the worst expressions of any bigotry were the frat boys. Put it this way — the worst thing Cohen could draw out of any American was a couple of whiny remarks from a couple of drunk frat boys about minorities supposedly having all the social advantages over white guys.
Now, they made a couple of passing dumb remarks, but they were still really nice fellows. First off, they were really nice to Borat. They gave the weirdo foreign hitchhiker a ride and drinks. They welcomed him with open arms, and expressed fine empathy with the foreign guy. One of us! Actions speak louder than words, and how you treat an actual person matters a lot more than any passing opinion about an abstract group that doesn't really exist. In the practice, the frat boys treated the other like a brother.
The only other American saying much bad was the guy at the rodeo – and I wouldn't consider his remarks especially egregious. The main thing was that he expressed a generalized suspicion of Muslims. Considering the current world situation, that's not 100% unreasonable though, is it? Even this most hardcore cowboy was not being malicious or hateful, only understandably suspicious.Neither he nor any American ever spouted any kind of dumb kill-em-all talk.
Borat was setting up the rodeo audience to make some stupid expression of patriotic bigotry or some such, but they flatly did not fulfill such a role. The bit was very funny, watching the audience try to figure out what to make of him. But they certainly did not just mindlessly follow along with the program that Cohen had hijacked. They applauded the arrival of the foreigner, and went along with a couple of general statements about defeating the enemy. He went on about hoping that Bush would kill every man, woman, and child in Iraq, which was cute for his part, but the crowd absolutely did not cheer that. They were paying attention
Then he went into an alternate lyric to the "Star Spangled Banner" presented as the Kazakhi anthem. It went something like that Kazakhistan was the greatest country with the greatest men in the world leading them, and all the other countries are run by little girls. I'd guess that somewhere in the middle of that, most of the audience was getting the basic point that they were being screwed with, and they booed him. The bit was very funny, but I don't see how it made the crowd look bad at all.
There's also been a lot made about a gun store owner whom Borat asked about what gun to use to kill a Jew — and got an answer. But looking closely at the exchange, I'll defend this guy completely. First off, note that Borat asked what kind of gun would be good to "defend" himself against a Jew. The shopkeeper responded with what kind of gun he might recommend for personal defense.
The only way this guy or several other Americans throughout the film would be guilty of offense is if your expectation is that it is morally incumbent that he cut Borat off with a self-righteous lecture when he says something that sounds bad. Instead, he politely guided Borat back to a better social conversation, and politely brushed him off. Very Important Note: He specifically refused to sell Borat a weapon — which is why they had to buy a bear. What then was the gun store owner's offense, politeness?
Finally, there's been a lot of attention to probably the longest piece of guerilla interaction, the Alabama dinner party. These wealthy white southerners, however, represented very well for America. They were not stupid, hateful or bigoted. They were very polite and patient for a good while in the face of serious provocation. Best I can tell, the only way you could say anything against them would be to convict them of racism strictly on the basis of living on "Secession Drive."
Borat basically told the dinner party that the preacher's wife (Sally Speaker) was ugly- with her sitting right there. The preacher (Cary Speaker, pastor of Mountain Brook Presbyterian Church) held his tongue. Borat came back from the bathroom carrying a bag of poo to their dinner table. One of the women discreetly took him aside to explain how the toilet works. Was this supposed to reflect badly on her somehow?
Only finally when he had a large half-dressed (black) prostitute show up at the door did the hosts finally throw in the towel. Even at that, they tried to tactfully call it a night, apparently finally calling the cops only when he just wouldn't get gone. Was that unreasonable of them? That seems like a great show of forbearance all around.
For my part, I'm either a good American patriot, or perhaps just a right wing nutjob. So I intend to discount even my best considered opinion at least 10%, but still. I don't see how you could look at this moviefilm and come out saying that the Americans looked bigoted or stupid. If these frat boys were the worst folks he ran into, then this must be a wonderful country. In fact, the Americans in this moviefilm would be excellent role models and influence for a third world country like Borat's version of Kazakhstan.
In summary then, Borat was uniformly treated warmly by nearly all the Americans he encountered, even when Cohen was screwing with them pretty hard. If my fellow Americans made themselves look a little foolish in this film, it was mostly on the side of being way too patient with the visitor. That speaks well of us. The movie was funny, and Borat was hilarious — and I'm happy that my fellow Americans acquitted themselves so well. I'd be proud to call any of them my neighbor and countryman.