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!"
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.
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.)
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.