Sacha Cohen’s War

The defining moment in The Dictator comes when Sacha Baron Cohen sings ‘Ebony and Ivory’ with the decapitated head of a black man. Cohen’s character, the fictional North African dictator General Hafez Aladeen has just snuck into a funeral in Harlem, intent on stealing a beard from the deceased. When Aladeen and his cohort are discovered, they hastily cut off the man’s head, and narrowly escape an angry black mob. Once they’ve returned to their hideout, Aladeen slips his hand inside the lifeless black head and uses it as a puppet to sing a mocking rendition of a song about racial harmony. It’s a sequence that may well define Cohen’s brand of comedy which presumes to irreverently satirise racial attitudes, while appropriating and hiding behind a black or brown mask.

Just as Aladeen is pursued by an angry mob, Cohen often leaves a trail of lawsuits in his wake, once his real-life marks realize they’ve been duped. For many, like Ayman Abu Aita, the Palestinian civilian, smeared as a terrorist in Bruno, and the impoverished Romanian villagers mocked in Borat, there is little recourse. Cohen has the deep pockets of a Hollywood legal team, while the residents of Glod don’t even have running water.

When you want to make it in Hollywood, however, you pick your targets carefully and go through their agents. Only then can you safely teabag Eminem or ‘kidnap’ Pamela Anderson. When in doubt, pick on someone smaller, a C-lister or an old woman and then call it satire.

The Dictator is Cohen’s first film as a Hollywood insider. Too famous to prank anyone with internet access, Cohen has brought his minstrel show out of the realm of Candid Camera verite and into the tamer genre of middlebrow American comedy. He brought his brown masks along with him, but the racial satire is broader than ever before.

As you may have guessed from the marketing assault, Cohen plays General Hafez Aladeen, the tyrannical leader of a fictional North African country called Wadiya. He has a coterie of female bodyguards, outrageous fashion sense, and a penchant for executing anyone who crosses him. The movie follows Aladeen to New York, where he’s meant to address the UN, but due to a political conspiracy, gets replaced with a doppelganger. Aladeen finds refuge in a hippie co-op run by a naive vegan feminist played by Anna Faris. Most of the film’s comedy rehashes Cohen’s ethnic fish out of water template, with Aladeen’s racism and misogyny clashing against the liberal values of his new friends. At one point, Faris offers to take him to visit the ‘rape center’ . You can guess the punchline to that one.

Cohen also plays the doppelganger Efawadh, a dimwitted peasant who, when left in a room with naked women, mistakes them for goats and tries to milk their breasts. He also drinks his own piss in front of a UN Assembly.

Despite its retrograde premise and Arab minstrelsy, The Dictator opened last week to mostly positive reviews, and almost no serious criticism. Mainstream pop culture sites, even those that typically critique racism in the media, were curiously silent. It was a stark contrast to the high profile controversies of the Pop Chips ad featuring Ashton Kutcher in brownface and Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis shtick at the Oscars. Is this because, as Max Blumenthal tweeted, ‘Some minstrel shows are more popular than others?’

To be fair, there has been some pushback. In an op-ed for CNN, Dean Obeidallah criticised the movie, not because of its racist jokes, but because Cohen is white. ‘If you are going to mock and ridicule us for profit,’ he wrote ‘can you at least cast Arabs and Indians to play us?’ There was also this lengthy essay at Loonwatch and a more blunt assessment at Foreign Policy.

Two days before the film opened, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi penned a satirical column for Salon attacking Hollywood’s history of whitewashing. His article and the accompanying slideshow called out familiar lowlights like Mickey Rooney as a bucktoothed Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but made no mention of Cohen or The Dictator. When I engaged with Mandvi on Twitter, he denied that The Dictator fit his definition of whitewashing.

Mandvi responded that ‘whitewashing and minstrelsy are separate issues’ and said that he really couldn’t comment on Cohen’s character without seeing the film. (Mandvi has a small part in the movie.) Ultimately, he claimed that the issue was too nuanced for Twitter.

Well, let’s look at those nuances. Below I present the most common defenses of The Dictator and my thoughts on them.

But Aladeen isn’t an ‘Arab’ .

Perhaps anticipating charges of minstrelsy, early in the film,  Cohen has Aladeen deny that he is an Arab. Racial ambiguity has been a hallmark of Cohen’s shtick ever since Ali G, harassed by an authority figure, asked ‘Is it because I is black?’

But there’s no mistaking the inspiration for this character. A map in the movie situates Aladeen’s homeland of Wadiya directly to the east of Sudan. Cohen has said that the film was inspired by a novel penned by Saddam Hussein. Aladeen is also clearly meant to resemble the late Muammar Gaddafi. There’s also a hint of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as the film’s timely plot concerns Wadiya’s enrichment of uranium ‘for peaceful purposes’ .

Though Wadiya is clearly an Arab country, the film follows Hollywood’s Orientalist playbook, mixing Persian, Arab and South Asian performers and cultural references. The central Arab characters are played by Cohen, Ben Kingsley (who is part Indian) and Jason Manzoukas (a Greek American.) The movie’s theme song is by Punjabi MC, a British Indian musician.


The Dictator’s humor is not racist. It’s about racism.

This is one of the slipperiest defenses offered for racist humor – that it’s not really racist, but rather ironically commenting on racism. The claim almost always deserves scrutiny. First of all, if this were true, The Dictator would not have found such popularity among racists, as these tweets demonstrate. OK, you might say, perhaps Cohen’s satire goes over the heads of your average American racist. But this ignores the thorny nature of ironic humor. In the film, Aladeen refers to black people as ‘subsaharans’ and ‘blackies’ . The white liberal audience laughs (mine did). Are they laughing at Aladeen’s ignorance? At the violation of hearing a racial slur? Do they recognize their own racism in the character?

In one scene, Aladeen remarks that darker-skinned men have lower sexual standards in women. The audience laughs again, as if the joke has revealed an uncomfortable ‘politically incorrect’ truth, rather than pandered to a racist stereotype. Ironic racism lets audiences have our cake and eat it too. It gives us permission to laugh at the violation of a racist joke, while comforting us that we do not share the same toxic attitudes.

Most of the film’s humor – the racial caricatures, the creepy attacks on feminism, the numerous rape jokes and the gay stereotypes have a similar thorniness. We’re invited to laugh at their wrongness but allowed to feel superior to such backwards attitudes, because we’re good liberals who know better, while the (brown) characters in the movie are savages.

But Cohen is an equal opportunity satirist. He makes fun of everyone, even Jews.

It’s true that in The Dictator, as in his previous work, Cohen’s humor relies heavily on anti-Semitic jokes. But here, as in Borat, he’s attributing those sentiments to the ethnic Other. Cohen doesn’t really mock Jews. In fact, he makes a caricature of the Other’s anti-Semitism. Borat, for instance, was a vicious anti-Semite whose village in Kazakhstan held an annual ‘Running of the Jews’. This gag was based on a lie, because anti-Semitism in Kazakhstan is actually quite rare. One of the deeper ironies of the village sequence is that Borat was also racist against ‘Gypsies’. And yet, Cohen the prankster had no reservations about exploiting the people of Glod to make the film.

Even in Cohen’s most notorious stunt, in which Borat led a bar full of ‘rednecks’ in a singalong of ‘Throw the Jew Down the Well’, it’s unclear how much he revealed about actual anti-Semitism. Though what we saw onscreen was a room full of rural white Americans cheerfully singing about killing Jews, follow-up reports suggest that many of the patrons were in on the joke.

In any case, if Cohen were really an equal opportunity satirist, he would pick more challenging targets. His frat-boy style satire doesn’t tip any sacred cows, for instance, when it comes to Israel. Cohen, an Orthodox Jew who was raised in the Zionist Habonim Dror, rarely criticises Israel and its policies. Instead, his comedy exaggerates anti-Semitism, while also attributing violence, homophobia and misogyny to the Muslim Other. It’s pinkwashing as comedy.

But Aladeen makes a speech where he criticises America too, right?

Yes, in the film’s penultimate scene, Aladeen gives a speech in which he inadvertently argues that America with its income inequality, media consolidation  and disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans already has the hallmarks of a dictatorship. It’s the movie’s only attempt at critiquing a first world target, but it mostly feels like pandering to Obama liberals.

The Dictator is not the work of a radical satirist, but of an establishment court jester. If Cohen’s political sympathies are at all in doubt, check out his social media team’s obnoxious linkbait at Buzzfeed, where Evo Morales is branded as a ‘dictator’ mocked for wearing traditional Andean clothing (seems they’ve silently edited this since I tweeted about it) and where Hugo Chavez finds himself in a rogue’s gallery with Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Kim Jong-Il.

The Dictator has much in common with voyeuristic spectacles like Boobquake and Draw Muhammad Day, in which Western liberals engaged in Islamophobia while purporting to defend feminism and free speech.

The Dictator is like a modern version of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

I’ll let film critic JR Jones handle this one:

Cohen probably thinks he’s Charlie Chaplin lampooning Hitler, but of course Hitler was still on top of the world when The Great Dictator came out in 1940; Cohen is actually Chaplin’s antithesis, a first-world bully content to target the Other.

In other words, Gaddafi wasn’t Hitler. The War on Terror isn’t WW2. And this is a shitty analogy.

Whatever you think of The Dictator, it does not arrive in a cultural vacuum. It finds us, instead, at the ‘end’ of a bloody and illegal war that had grave consequences for the people of Iraq. It appears as we are ‘winding down’ our long war in Afghanistan. And while we rattle sabers with Iran. It follows Obama’s, um, ‘unauthorized bombing’ of Libya (Wadiya’s most obvious inspiration) which led to the eventual capture, rape and execution of Gaddafi.

The film’s release coincides with a new era of drone warfare against Arabs and Muslims, of faceless warriors dropping remote control bombs on Pakistan and Yemen. It arrives in an era of presidential kill lists, indefinite detention and omnipresent surveillance of Muslim Americans. It opens while liberals boast about the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s success in putting a due process-free bullet in Osama bin Laden’s face. In short, Cohen’s minstrel show comes in the midst of a period of peak violence against Arabs and Muslims.

There is no war without culture war, and Cohen’s Dictator shtick has the dubious function of allowing us to laugh at (or perhaps justify) our recent and ongoing crimes of war and racial profiling. After Cohen smeared Abu Aita as a terrorist in Bruno, he perpetrated the lie in an interview with David Letterman while out of character. Branding ordinary Palestinians as terrorists to further your own agenda? That’s what bullying governments do. It is not the stuff of satire.

The Dictator is not a product of the Arab Spring, but a sideshow in the unending War on Terror.


Cross-posted from My Own Private Guantanamo.

Matt Cornell

Matt Cornell is pursuing a PhD in cultural analysis at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on the emergence of infantile aesthetics and affects in precarious times. He also works as a film programmer in Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter at @mattcornell. More by Matt Cornell ›

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  1. Well, moral outrage is Cohen’s most effective megaphone. Bigots may have their poisonous views reinforced but I doubt his rubbish will convert anyone to such views. Just another deadening tentacle of the reactionary pop culture mash cloaked in “irony”. I won’t be losing sleep waiting for him to lampoon an Israeli settler.

    1. Thanks for an excellent article Matt.

      Boris I kind of disagree. I know a few people who, while not out and out bigots, will see this film as further legitimising their tendencies in that direction. Perhaps mainly because its only in this ‘ironic’ and ‘funny’ medium that they feel free to express and revel in racism.

  2. Excellent piece! It raises a question: how is this actually possible? How can someone like Cohen purport to be a liberal engaging in satire when he is really a court jester for the establishment, as you put it? I reckon answering it requires us to face up to one of the ideological fundaments of late capitalism (which is why this is an excellent piece).

    Cohen occupies a problematic ideological position, and invites us to laugh in a complex fashion. On the surface it would seem that he portrays racist fantasies/stereotypes that we ‘don’t really believe in’ in a way that lampoons those stereotypical fantasies and the people who hold them. In that sense he would appear to be a good liberal satirising racism. As the response to this most recent film demonstrates, however, this is actually too quick, and the complexity and level of irony do not simply cancel out the deep racism (I actually think this has been the case with Cohen for years and, though I haven’t seen The Dictator yet, it seems like a line has been crossed here, and he is starting to show himself for what he always was). There’s something very interesting happening here to belief, to how we believe we believe. Cohen’s work is evidence of a shift.

    In this respect it is similar to the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. What’s difficult about a show like South Park or a film like Team America is the slipperiness of the ideological position, but (like Cohen) they are often simply defended on the grounds that they ‘have a go at everyone’. As you pointed out in our recent Twitter conversation, Matt, Team America ends with a militaristic paean to America’s role as international policeman. The fact that that paean is delivered ironically, indeed obscenely (it is basically an extended dick joke), is actually part of its content: the lesson is that we don’t have to ‘really believe’ in something to be ideologically wedded to it. Soldiers of past generations have gotten revved by watching anti-war films like Full Metal Jacket, ignoring the ideological content and simply soaking up the violence; in Iraq they cranked America: Fuck Yeah! in their tanks, a song that is actually a joke that isn’t really a joke at all. Or rather, the joke is the message, and the message is America: Fuck Yeah!

    I’m reminded of this video: As the cutting makes abundantly clear, there are two presidents here: the one who gravely warns the American people of the lethal weapons hidden by Saddam Hussein, and the one who comes along afterwards to joke obscenely at his expense. The first president possesses (or pretends to possess) both power and authority. The second president is brazenly acknowledging his lack of the latter, but in a way that does not call his possession of the former into question. What we are witnessing is a break in the link between power and authority; it is now possible to have one without the other. It’s a terrifying thought, actually: we don’t – indeed maybe we can’t – ‘really’ believe in power, but we exercise it with impunity in spite of that fact (or, more terrifying still, perhaps because of it).

    1. Thanks for expanding on your tweets here, Matthew. I think you’re onto something about the contradictions inherent in “ironic” humor like this. It reminds me of Zizek’s observations about ideology as something that reveals itself through what we do, even as, in the case of capitalism, we disavow our belief in it. (If I’m understanding his point.)

      We’re at a point where much of popular culture comes with its own prefab auto-critique, as if it’s anticipating and neutralizing challenges in advance. David Foster Wallace wrote about this phenomenon in advertising back in the 90s, but you could well apply it to most cultural products, perhaps especially to humor. So I think your question about the function of irony in late capitalism is a big one, and worth exploring.

      Your observation about Bush is an interesting one. It also makes me think a bit of Obama’s joke about killing the
      Jonas Brothers with drones, although obviously in that case, the joke isn’t really at his own expense.

  3. I agree, a very useful article.
    We need to win, once again, an argument about racism. IMO, for many people, racism has come to mean a set of ideas held only by a minority of evil cranks. Because of that, they find it almost impossible to accept that anti-Arab bigotry constitutes racism, on the basis that such notions are so widespread and so normalised.

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