Bruno as minstrel show?

In Salon, David Rakoff reviews the new Sacha Baron Cohen film:

The months of planted news stories (like the fashion show disrupted by our Velcro-clad hero who stumbled onto the runway from backstage, dozens of pricey outfits stuck to him), his name with its saucy umlaut spray-painted everywhere, all pointing to the same thing: that “Brüno” would be a hilarious cultural corrective. Just like his predecessor, Borat, who exposed America’s vulgarity, ignorance and, more darkly, its entrenched anti-Semitism, Brüno would shine the light of truth on the last acceptable bigotry: homophobia. “Brüno” would be bracing and minty and somehow good for the gays for a variety of reasons. [snip]





Baron Cohen’s Brüno is a gay minstrel, in the most literal sense of the word. Just as the characters of the burnt-cork vaudevillians had, bound up ineluctably with their dark complexions, traits like being shiftless, lazy, and “a-feared of spooks” as their eyes bugged out in Neanderthal, superstitious terror, Brüno’s homosexuality comes bundled up with a lot of unattractive software. He is an open hydrant of empty, venal ignorance, a fame-chasing, grandiose fucktard, all because he is a cockaholic (his term). The repeated pistoning of sucking dick has scrambled his brains, just as surely as a muddler pulverizes mint leaves. Make no mistake: It is gay sex that has made Brüno stupid. Perez Hilton has the sobriety, moral rectitude and class of Lewis Lapham by comparison.

What makes Rakoff’s ‘minstrel’ metaphor rather odd is that Baron Cohen came to fame through portraying, well, a stereotypical black man, actually. There’s no reference to Ali G in Rakoff’s piece, perhaps because the character didn’t translate to the US nearly as well as Borat. Which is interesting in and off itself. Americans are (rightly) much more sensitive about whites playing black characters than the British are — after all, ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ played on UK television until 1978.

For the US, Borat was much more palatable than Ali G. Every liberal knows that anti-Semitism is a Bad Thing — and the funniest moments in ‘Borat’ came, as Rakoff suggests, when the character exposed the latent bigotry in those with whom he interacted. Yet, while opposition to anti-Jewish racism is mainstream, there are other forms of bigotry that are less easy to oppose. The Borat character was, as it happened, a swarthy foreigner from a -Stan country and thus his sexism, anti-Semitism and general stupidity confirmed all the stereotypes being generated by the Bush administration’s various wars.

More concretely, the village represented in the film as Borat’s home actually belonged to Romanian gypsies, some of the poorest and most persecuted people in Europe (cf the recent European elections, where parties openly called for a ‘final solution’ to the Gypsy ‘problem’ achieved double-digit results). Not surprisingly, the villagers felt betrayed about being portrayed ignorant racists:

They claim film-makers lied to them about the true nature of the project, which they believed would be a documentary about their hardship, rather than a comedy mocking their poverty and isolation.

Villagers say they were paid just £3 each for this humiliation, for a film that took around £27million at the worldwide box office in its first week of release.


So when a Hollywood film crew descended on a nearby run-down motel last September, with their flashy cars and expensive equipment, locals thought their lowly community might finally be getting some of the investment it so desperately needs. The crew was led by a man villagers describe as ‘nice and friendly, if a bit weird and ugly’, who they later learned was Baron Cohen. It is thought the producers chose the region because locals more closely resembled his comic creation than genuine Kazakhs. The comedian insisted on travelling everywhere with bulky bodyguards, because, as one local said: ‘He seemed to think there were crooks among us.’

While the rest of the crew based themselves in the motel, Baron Cohen stayed in a hotel in Sinaia, a nearby ski resort a world away from Glod’s grinding poverty. He would come to the village every morning to do ‘weird things’, such as bringing animals inside the run-down homes, or have the village children filmed holding weapons. Mr Tudorache, a deeply religious grandfather who lost his arm in an accident, was one of those who feels most humiliated. For one scene, a rubber sex toy in the shape of a fist was attached to the stump of his missing arm – but he had no idea what it was. [snip]

He invited us into his humble home and brought out the best food and drink his family had. Visibly disturbed, he said shakily: ‘Someone from the council said these Americans need a man with no arm for some scenes. I said yes but I never imagined the whole country, or even the whole world, will see me in the cinemas ridiculed in this way. This is disgusting. Our region is very poor, and everyone is trying hard to get out of this misery. It is outrageous to exploit people’s misfortune like this to laugh at them.’

Yes, it kinda is, isn’t it! It’s difficult to believe that ‘Borat’ could have been screened if it used a black or Jewish ghetto in such a way.

But that’s why Baron Cohen’s comedy is so ambiguous. On occasion, particularly on the early ‘Ali G Show’, he gets his laughs from quite fearless exposes of the rich and powerful. But if there’s something admirable about a performer prepared to conduct a ridiculous interview with, say, politician, there’s something correspondingly depressing about a movie star such as Baron Cohen’s become holding up ordinary people for ridicule.

Which, judging by the review in the Age today, seems to be pretty much the running gag in ‘Bruno’.

Course, I haven’t seen it yet, so maybe all this is quite wrong.

increasingly he’s also willing to make the

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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