I have been confused by the critical silence about Sasha Baron Cohen’s new film The Dictator. I suppose it is always confusing when in the face of a product singularly based on the idea of stringing together a couple of hours worth of racial, societal, cultural and ethnic stereotypes and hoping to get a laugh out of them receives no critical commentary.
Watching even the clips that were released to the public makes it near impossible for me to even attempt to view this film. The cliches, the stereotypes, the image of the Arab that is presented in the film is so disgusting, bigoted and so entirely wrong that one is left speechless. How does one even argue with sheer stupidity and idiocy? Do you give it more due by attempting to engage it?
The movie brings into one, concentrated forum the collective distorted, discredited, bigoted and unreal stereotypes that have been the bread winner for the classical Orientalist and Arab fantasist. And far from being an ironic commentary on the racism and ignorance that pervades the West when it comes to all things Middle Eastern, it in fact exploits this ignorance and feeds into it.
The result is simply staggeringly puerile. It is as if we are not in the 21st century, when major social, cultural, and political changes are taking place across the Middle East, and have been for decades. It is as if the 19th century Orientalist intellectual, writer, scholar and traveller’s imaginary of Arabs as culturally stagnant, sensuous, insipid, greedy, lecherous, untrustworthy, brutal, violent, irrational and uncivilized remains intact and unchallenged by reality and by modernity. We are laughing at camel jockeys!
I suppose I have already given this movie too much attention. I should watch it, analyse each line, and each scene, and break it down and align it to the long heritage of colonial and Orientalist depictions of a barbaric, indulgent, backward, uncivilized, uncouth, uneducated, violent, brutal, and simply moronic Arab Middle East. I could do that. I just can’t find the intellectual patience to garland this nonsense with thought.
Perhaps that is why there has been such critical silence in general. Perhaps people are simply too exhausted to unravel each second of this movie, for the sheer intensity and scale of its inanity defeats any and all intelligent and coherent discussions. Perhaps in the end it is yet another victory for choosing the comforts of an essentialist slur versus the difficulties of actual engagement and understanding. Or perhaps the former just makes for better jokes.
Which brings me to the usual defence often put forward by so-called comedians … its just a joke. Well, not quite. The best jokes work when in fact they echo something we sense, experience, and understand from the real world. This is the secret of all those The New Yorker cartoons – they plan on real situation, sensibilities, issues and struggles and twist them into unexpected places. We laugh because the joke resonates with something we know or feel and that it has been offered to use diffused from its context. Racist jokes also work because they resonate with our ideas of other people, or simplicities we do associate with them in some manner. This is also one of the reasons for the success of so many ‘ethnic’ comedians whose principal shtick is ethnic jokes. We can laugh because a black man is making fun of black man and so it can’t be racist. Its just cool then. David Chappell can say things about the Black man that we can only laugh at if he says them. He makes them acceptable. We make them laughable.
Anyways, I have already said too much. The Arabs, the Muslims, and Islam (whatever that is!!) remain the one people, community and faith that we can say almost anything essentialist, racist, bigoted, hateful and demeaning against and be quickly hide behind the protection of 1) the right to free speech, 2) its just jokes, and 3) social commentary. Edward Said has discussed this many times, particularly in works like Covering Islam: How The Media And The Experts Determine How We See The Rest Of The World so I will not repeat his arguments here, but do encourage you to read this amazing work itself.
I still await an honest, clear minded and critical review of a movie that feeds into the sweeping Islamophobic and orientalist banalities about Arabs and Islam that passes for serious debate and discussion in the USA and in Europe. Such films – coming at a time when a lunatic and mass murderer is gleefully selling his hate on prime time television, when right wing parties are growing in political strength all across Europe, and when actual wars are being waged across lands that are predominantly Muslim in inhabitants, can’t be seen in their claimed innocence or hypocritical arguments of being just about humor. They are contributing to a culture that is completely comfortable indulging in the most racist and reductive banalities of anything Islamic, Muslim or Arab and doing so without a hint of self-reflection or self-awareness of the bigotry and hate that it carries within.
The Muslim communities (with their diversity of history, immigration experiences, cultures and practices – saying ‘Muslim Community’ is a generalization that hides the regions immigrant complexities, differences, and diversity) in Europe and the USA are a besieged, essentialized and harassed minority. We are exhibiting towards them an anti-intellectual, anti-democratic and anti-humanist legal and social behavior and are defending ourselves with arguments of the right to free speech, and democracy. Into this volatile mix, movies such as The Dictator are not merely entertainment, but are close to direct and continued incitement.
Update: The reviews are finally coming in, and the declarations are quite specific. Foreign Policy has a piece by Joshua E. Keating title Is The Dictator Racist? Yes. And Its Not That Funny Either where Keating points out that:
The best satire targets the powerful, bringing them down a few notches and deflating their bubbles of self-importance. But in the first Hollywood film to address last year’s Arab uprisings, Cohen seems less interested in laughing with the people who live under the Qaddafis and Mubaraks of the world than at them.
In another piece, titled Sacha Cohen and Arab Minstrelsy – a more broader exploration of the craft of the ministral, Daniel Ibn Zayd points out that:
…his [Sasha Cohen] portrayal of stereotypes are in fact directed at an audience the class of which has controlled the destiny of those living “under dictatorships” for the greater part of the last century, if not the past 500 years. The insinuation here is that such dictatorships are a function of the Arab inability to assume democracy (a great Orientalism, barely worthy of non-scholars such as Bernard Lewis) and claiming falsely that the region has no democratic or, indeed, socialist, pan-Arabist, anti-colonialist, etc. aspects to its past.
Finally, Matt Cornell who writes the ‘My Own Private Guantanamo’ blog penned a piece called Sacha Cohen’s War, where he argued that:
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…..
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.
Finally, read this review by film critic J.R. Jones where he stated that:
His grotesque ethnic this time around is Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen, a vain North African strongman reminiscent of Saddam and Gaddafi, and for every clever gag (a video game that gives points for beheading Westerners) there are three stupid gross-outs (drinking urine, milking a woman like a cow, licking a lover’s unshaven armpits). 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.