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.
Borat, the unspeakably uncouth Kazakh TV presenter dreamed up by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, is raising a stink – along with box office revenues – in cinemas. An anti-Semite and misogynist, seriously unversed in the politically correct, Borat journeys around the "U, S and A" and shines a spotlight on America's own underlying tensions and prejudices. Wandering in a dirty, Soviet-era suit – with only a live chicken in his suitcase, an overweight producer, and dreams of "Pamela Andersons" to keep him company – Borat travels to the heart of America in "Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." He finds that not everything is "niiice!"Skip to next paragraph
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But this isn't the first time Mr. Baron Cohen has visited the US for "cultural learnings" and wrestled with issues of race and identity. (Though let's hope it is the last time he wrestles with his naked producer.)
In 1992, when he was a history student at Cambridge University, he did it for real. He visited Atlanta and interviewed Jewish and black activists for his undergraduate dissertation on the "Black-Jewish alliance" in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Think of it as a first take: "Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit the Dissertation."
What did Baron Cohen see in that first work trip to the US? Is there an early whiff of a "Baron Cohen philosophy" in his dissertation? And might Borat and Baron Cohen's other characters – Ali G, the white guy who walks and talks black, and Bruno, the camp Austrian TV presenter who gets fashionistas to put their Jimmy Choo-ed feet in their mouths – have been born in the cloistered halls of Cambridge?
We go to Cambridge in the U and K to find out. You read.
Seeley Library at Cambridge University is a million mental leaps away from Borat's fictional village, where owning a clock radio is the height of sophistication and women win trophies for prostitution. This august repository of knowledge is set in a modernist, red-brick building with a pyramid-shaped glimmering glass roof. Wawaweewa!
Whispering so as not to disturb students with their noses buried in dusty tomes, a librarian requests a signature for the dissertation. It has been signed out only a handful of times before.
Instantly striking in the 45-page, plastic-bound document is the title – "The 'Black-Jewish Alliance': A Case of Mistaking Identities." It sounds like a description of Ali G. That character is an alliance of blackness and Jewishness, in which Baron Cohen – a devout Jew who eats kosher and observes the Sabbath – adopts the mannerisms of a blinged-up black Briton from the "Staines ghetto." (Staines is a middle-class suburb in leafy Surrey.) And Ali G is a major "case of mistaking identities," with his interviewees (or rather, victims) unable to figure out if he's black, white, or "for real."
Baron Cohen's dissertation, written in remarkably crisp (for British academe) prose with a number of studentlike typos, suggests that at 20 he was fascinated by America and its "melting pot" of identities long before Borat drove the US from coast to coast in an ice-cream truck.
He focused on links between blacks and Jews in 1960s America, arguing that claims of a "Black-Jewish alliance" have been exaggerated. Yes, Jewish organizations supported desegregation, but they didn't officially promote mass action or civil disobedience in the South. It was Jewish students, of their own volition, Baron Cohen wrote, who took part in marches, freedom rides, and voter registration projects.
Borat might disagree, but, in parts, the dissertation reads like the intellectual foundation of Baron Cohen's comic creations. He argues that Jews' own history of suffering "played a vital role in predisposing them to identify with oppressed Blacks."
The Jewish activist Irving Levine told Baron Cohen that some young Jews aligned themselves with "the Black struggle" as a way of considering "their own identity issues." They were effectively embracing "movements ... for otherness," Levine told the student.
Now, years later, Ali G. – this white guy from Surrey, played by a Jew from well-off West London – takes on the extreme otherness of young black Brits with the chunky jewelry, the big, baggy yellow sweat shirts, the wannabe-gangsta street slang.