There is nothing funny about the racism in the Borat sequel

There is nothing funny about the racism in the Borat sequel
Comment: Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat character is as xenophobic and offensive today as he was in 2005. He should be shunned by Hollywood, write Gia Noortas and Hiba Rahim.
5 min read
Borat's original 2005 won a host of industry awards [Getty]
In recent years, the American film industry has become increasingly aware of the need to encourage diversity and oppose bigotry both on screen and behind the camera. Film associations, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, have also finally recognised the need to ensure that the films and filmmakers nominated for awards better reflect the diverse talent of the industry.

With this heightened awareness of the need to root out racial prejudice, you would think that Hollywood would certainly reject racism or prejudice expressed against any minority or marginalised community. 

Yet today, a movie that is egregiously bigoted, xenophobic, crude, Islamophobic and full of lies about an entire ethnic group is one of 2020's most watched movies on an SVOD platform. 

Like its Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning 2006 predecessor, Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm portrays Kazakhstan's people as misogynistic, incestuous, stupid, rapists, anti-Semitic and otherwise despicable.

If this type of bigotry had been used against another people with a stronger voice, anti-discrimination organisations and their allies would have joined in a rallying cry to denounce and boycott the film.  

But the Kazakh community has organised and is pushing back. This week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations joined the Kazakh American Association in sending letters to the Directors Guild of America, the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. They called for these bastions of the film industry to bar Mr. Cohen, his cast and crew, and the film from consideration for awards at this year's competition. 

Mr Cohen racially abuses, culturally appropriates, and mocks the Kazakh culture, traditions, and people for the purpose of crude laughter

Sacha Baron Cohen, ultimately a wealthy, privileged white man, has used the Kazakh people as the subject of his comedic exploits because he believes that they lack the political or economic power to pursue such a campaign.

In fact, the only other prominent example of Kazahkstan in film was the 1997 Harrison Ford film Air Force One, which depicted Kazakh terrorists led by Gary Oldman's character kidnapping the American president in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Unconcerned about consequences, Mr. Cohen racially abuses, culturally appropriates, and mocks the Kazakh culture, traditions, and people for the purpose of crude laughter and monetary gain. His actions are not only offensive. They are directly harmful. Kazakhs know this from personal experience. 

Since the release of the first Borat in 2006, many Kazakhs have experienced psychological turmoil and ethnic-based humiliation. Many Kazakhs have had to explain to others that Cohen's portrayal of Kazakhstan and its people as bigoted and backwards is a vile misrepresentation. Many Kazakh children have been bullied at school, and Kazakh women have been exposed to distasteful sexual jokes or harassment.  

In other words, the bigotry Cohen perpetuates in the name of comedy has resulted in an increase of targeted bias toward Kazakhs around the world as people continue to judge the underrepresented people of Kazakhstan by Cohen's despicable stereotypes.

Every day, civil rights organisations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and its 33 chapters across America deal with the effects of anti-Muslim prejudice and propaganda. People from Kazakhstan, a diverse and majority-Muslim nation, are doubly at risk of being harmed by the antics of Sacha Baron Cohen, who has a habit of employing thinly veiled anti-Muslim stereotypes in his characters, from Borat to the Dictator to Ali G.

Considering today's more socially respectful political climate, why is a film that openly berates, bullies, and traumatises a nation composed of people of colour an acceptable form of entertainment that meets producer Amazon's ethical values? Is racism acceptable if it is directed toward people with small international communities and limited representation? Or does the potential for monetary gain blind people and corporations to certain victims of racism, bigotry and even ethnic cleansing 

Is racism acceptable if it is directed toward people with small international communities and limited representation?

Why do we applaud Warner Bros 'racism' disclaimer that reads, "The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today," yet award present-day ethnic and racial bigotry with high ratings and recognition? 

Make no mistake: Kazakhs have a great sense of humour, just like everyone else. They also recognise that Sacha Baron Cohen sometimes uses his bigoted characters to expose bigotry in others. However, there must be a way to counter bigotry without engaging in bigotry.

Comedy and profit are no excuse for racism and xenophobia. We are in dire need of moving humanity forward during a time when intercultural literacy is most needed.  

To that end, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and other major film associations should bar the Borat sequel from awards consideration. 

It's bad enough that Borat received awards attention in 2006. It's imperative that it does not happen again in 2020.

Gia Noortas is a film and television producer. She is the CEO and Founder of the Hollywood Film Academy. She has 20 years of corporate management experience in Central Asia and the USA.

Follow her on Twitter: GiaNoortas

Hiba Rahim works for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is America's largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organisation. She is a graduate of Florida State University's International Affairs Master's programme.

Follow her on Twitter: @rahim_hiba

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.