Backstory: Borat write thesis. It niiiice. You like read?
Sacha Baron Cohen's crude Kazakh journalist may have originated in a dissertation on the 'Black-Jewish alliance' in 1960s America.
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Even Borat seems to "identify with oppressed Blacks" and wishes to embrace their "otherness." Approaching a group of young blacks in his movie, he declares: "I like you peoples. How can I be like you?" They teach him urban-speak and how to hike up his underwear to show above his trousers. ("What's up wit it, vanilla face?" Borat later asks a hotel receptionist.)Skip to next paragraph
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Might Baron Cohen's portrayal of affinity with black "others," in Britain and the US, stem from his studies of Jews who lined up with blacks in the '60s? Maybe that's why only blacks are depicted sympathetically in "Borat." Where the pseudo-Kazakh mocks stuffy, uptight whites, he learns from urban blacks. And don't forget that Luenell, a black prostitute, is the heroine of the movie.
Elsewhere in the dissertation, Baron Cohen muses that Jews may have taken up the black struggle because it is part of the Jewish ethic to "know the stranger," to defend those cast out. He quotes the Passover command "Know the stranger, for thou wert strangers in Egypt," and cites Jewish activists who believe you can judge a man by the way he treats those who are "strange."
Baron Cohen pretty much has turned this ancient Jewish ethic into a guerrilla comedy tactic designed to expose prejudice. His characters are archetypal "strangers": the weirdly foreign Borat, the self-ghettoized Ali G, the over-the-top-gay Bruno. And their aim is to provoke reactions to their strangeness. The "good guys" are generally tolerant (even as Borat is giving them sloppy kisses), and the bad guys get hot under the collar (like the pastor who storms out of a dinner party with Borat).
Who'd have guessed? Borat the anti-Semite may be built on firmly Jewish ethical foundations. But what about the meat of Baron Cohen's dissertation? Is it convincing?
"It sounds interesting," says David Garrow, the Pulitzer prize-winning American author of "Bearing the Cross," an exhaustive study of the life and times of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mr. Garrow, currently a senior research fellow at Cambridge, says he's seen "probably three films in the past 10 years;" Borat's saga isn't one of them. But he's read about Borat everywhere and is intrigued by the dissertation's parallels to the movie. Told about Baron Cohen's dissertation arguments on the rupture in the "Black-Jewish alliance" in 1967, Garrow says they sound "a little simplistic." Baron Cohen put it down to the Six-Day War in the Middle East, when many black radicals sided with Arabs while Jewish radicals sided with Israel. "That was part of it," says Garrow. "But there were also economic and social tensions."
Charney Bromberg, a former civil rights field-worker in Mississippi and now executive director of the progressive Zionist organization Meretz in New York, is shocked to hear he was interviewed by Baron Cohen back in 1992.
"I was?" He laughs, in a phone interview. "Well, he must have been far less conspicuous than this Borat character, because I don't remember him." Mr. Bromberg hasn't seen the movie ("Though you could talk to my children about it endlessly," he notes). But he sounds pleased at Baron Cohen's dissertation theme: "It sounds like he got a lot out of what I was trying to say."
Larry Rubin, a former director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs who was also interviewed by Baron Cohen for the dissertation, doesn't remember him either. "I guess he was just an earnest young student, and I see a lot of them." He saw the Borat movie, and says he's "agnostic on its helpfulness in combating prejudice. I can see that it's supposed to skewer anti-Semitism, but satire is a lofty form of comedy, and some people don't get it."
But Baron Cohen's "heart is in the right place," Mr. Rubin says via phone from New York. "And maybe I had some small part in that, if I helped him with his studies on equality back then."
It's strange, as the whispering librarian takes back the dissertation, to think that Borat – the laughed-at ignoramus – may have been born here, in the bookish halls of a lofty seat of learning.