By Sarah Osman
Sacha Baron Cohen uncovers enough destructive inanity in Borat II to justify the savagery of its satire of American ignorance.
In 2006, during my freshman year of college, my friends and I made the hour-long trek from Santa Fe to Albuquerque to see Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit for Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. We couldn’t stop laughing at the film’s bizarre satire, partly because we were stunned by the sheer audacity of the stunts that writer and star Sacha Baron Cohen had pulled off. Borat (Cohen), a fictional reporter from Kazakhstan, toured America interviewing many of its real-life denizens, slowly uncovering shocking evidence of our country’s enduring racism and sexism. Borat became a cultural phenomenon, and Cohen retired the character in 2007.
So its been 14 years since Borat first arrived in America. America went through some changes – we had our first Black president, we legalized gay marriage, and we’ve become more aware of outright racism (if not the systemic kind). On the other hand, a bigoted reality star was voted in as President, hate crimes rose, children asking for asylum were put in cages, and COVID has taken the lives of over 200,000 Americans. These traumas to the body politic came out-of-the blue for some — but Cohen predicted their like over a decade ago. He decided it was the right time to bring Borat out of retirement and send him across America again.
Available on Amazon Prime, Borat II: Subsequent Moviefilm is perhaps even more poignant (and hilarious) than its predecessor. It turns out that Borat’s life back home is nice … NOT. He is living in a gulag because the powers-that-be think in his film brought shame to Kazakhstan. He’s given a redemptive opportunity, tasked with delivering Kazakhstan’s celebrity monkey as a gift to Michael Pence (who is referred to as a pussy hound, a gag that gets funnier each time it’s mentioned). Unfortunately for Borat, his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), snuck into the monkey crate and ate the animal. He decides that Tutar will serve as the country’s offering to Pence, and the wacky pair embark on a road trip from the deep South to New York.
Bakalova, who is quite well known in her home country of Bulgaria, more than holds her zany own against Cohen. In fact, some of the film’s best moments revolve around her: she performs a highly inappropriate dance at a debutante ball and, much to the horror of a Republican women’s conference, she loudly celebrates the joys of masturbation, encouraging all of the women to join her in doing so. The presence of a female counterpart means that Cohen (and co.) are able to comment with ease on the rampant sexism women encounter. Tutar was raised in a fictional misogynistic society, so she’s flabbergasted by the freedoms American women have. (They can read! They can drive!) These moments lampooning toxic reactionary attitudes are amusing, but there are genuinely disturbing scenes that focus on the sexism women actually do face. Tutar believes that Melania Trump is a fairy-tale princess (she even watches a Disney-like cartoon of Trump magically grabbing her crotch. She is convinced that, by becoming Pence’s bride, she will be just as happy. Fathers at the debutante ball in the film tell Borat that they love “pretty girls” and leer at Tutar. And, pathetically, these guys who love “pretty girls” have no problem rubbing the back of a 15-year-old girl, who is expected to welcome (as a form of training?) the advances of wealthy older men.
Just as in the first film, Cohen excels at finding gullible Americans who don’t flinch at or question his actions. A baker doesn’t even blink when he asks her to write “Jews will not replace us” on a cake; a cage salesman high five’s Borat as they chat about children being put into cages. A pro-life counselor doesn’t raise a faint objection when he tells her he put a baby in his daughter. All of these moments suggest just how commonly racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism are accepted in America. They are everyday occurrences; many of our fellow Americans don’t even raise an eyebrow when they encounter these attitudes. It is seen as part of doing business — the customer is always right, no matter how bigoted.
Some of Borat II’s most head-shaking scenes involve Cohen’s political stunts. At one point, Borat bursts into the CPAC lobby wearing a KKK robe. He then storms into the room where Pence is speaking (or Mike Penis, as Borat calls him). He is carrying Tutar over his shoulder and demands that Pence take her in marriage (he does all of this dressed up as Trump). Spectators watch the doings as Pence looks on with a mixture of amusement and confusion. The scene is hilarious and weirdly satisfying to watch.
Even more amazing is the fact that Cohen, entirely in character, stayed with two QAnon followers during the pandemic. His new “friends” inform Borat that Obama should be in jail and that democrats drink the blood of children. Remarkably, Cohen never once breaks character, nor do these two cult crazies realize that Borat is a fictional character. Admirably, the performer is nothing if not committed to his satiric art. Cohen later crashes a right-wing anti-mask rally where, disguised as a country singer, he leads the crowd in disturbing chants (Obama/what we gonna do/inject him with the Wuhan Flu). The scene is hysterical but downright horrifying. In interviews, Cohen has admitted he wore a bulletproof vest under his costume: he feared for his life while filming this scene. His anxiety is completely understandable, and speaks to the rampant rise in hate crimes.
The most discussed moment of Borat II is, of course, Rudy Guiliani’s questionable behavior. While he is being interviewed by Tutar (who is 15 in the film), he begins to make sexual advances toward her. After she removes his headset (so they can have a drink together), he appears to raise up his hands and stick them down his pants. Guiliani insists he was aware the film was a joke (I doubt it), but his actions still evoke vile behavior of too many of our politicians. Given all the casual prejudices and predatory privileges this film reveals, should anyone be surprised that men like Guiliani wield so much power so stupidly?
Borat II ends with a plea for Americans to vote. Considering all of the destructive inanity Cohen highlights, a savagely satiric film like this has never been needed more. Americans are known for their ignorance of the world outside their borders (Cohen and Bakalova do not speak Kazakh; Cohen speaks Hebrew and Bakalova speaks Bulgarian. They figured most of the people they met wouldn’t be able to tell that the languages were different. They were right, of course.) We have come to a point in our history where we can no longer live so cluelessly. We need to vote for people who trust in the bedrock value of science, rationality, and knowledge — or be ruled by empty-headed thugs who believe in “cutting off journalists’ heads like the Saudi do.” Wise up — if there was ever an election to vote in, it’s this one.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.