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Raj Patel © 2002


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The boy’s done well. With just one joke, he has risen from the depths of Channel 4’s late Friday night schedule to the driving seat of Madonna’s limousine, the MTV awards and even Tony Benn’s fireplace. He is an impresario of schoolboy humour, a master of a naughty iconoclasm that deflates the pompous, and scorns the self-obsessed. He’s Sacha Baron Cohen, and his alter ego, Ali G, has hit the screens in the UK with Ali G inDaHouse.

It is an appalling film.

Here are some reasons not to see it.

I - Fool

Remember when Ali G was funny? It was back in the day, the accent still wavered between under-confident white-teen-with-hangups and over-confident white-teen-with-hangups, the goatee was still soft, and baseball caps were used to hide his tumbling hair. The young Ali G subverted a generation terrified by youth culture. That terror is funny, it is uncomfortable, it speaks of the generation gap as important now as when the Rolling Stones raised the drawbridge on it. Watching powerful people squirm is good comedy. Ali G was, briefly, an exemplary court jester.

One of the joys of watching Baron Cohen perform was the unscripted character of interviews; although he clearly came to the interviews with some idea of the shape of his lunacy, there was always an edgily improvised feel to it. It forced a reliance on his own, sharp, wit. This excerpt, lifted from The Guardian’s Ali G temple, shows him at his best.

"What about marrying a Catholic girl?" he says to George Patton, the grandmaster of the Orange Order in the north of Ireland. "Possibly because of my faith I would not," replies Patton. "But what if she was fit?" asks Ali G. "What if she had her own car and sound system and wasn't gonna be stealing money off you all the time?"

Here, there’s fear of youth and black culture, powerful people squirming, Ali G’s stupidity and the confusion it causes, and they edgily improvised lunacy. There's something else, too: the sexism of the question ("what if she was fit?") works in the service of the eminently progressive thought that sexual desire always transcends sectarian bigotry (cf Romeo and Juliet et cetera ad nauseam), and so as odd as it may seem, in this case he's on the side of the angels and tapping into archetypal narratives along the way.

Well, almost. In general, however, the misogyny comes unvarnished, and its articulation with black culture is pernicious. Its deployment, even for progressive causes, is something to worry about. Indeed, this articulation has not always been allowed to pass with such magnanimous complicity. He had a wonderfully table-turning moment with Old Labour hero, Tony Benn:

"Like, yeah, when I’m hanging with my bitches, we… ’,
"Wait a second, you can’t call women "bitches". It’s thoroughly disrespectful."
"No buts. It’s wrong."

Baron Cohen’s bluff was called. I have been told, and I believe, that Mr Benn subsequently phoned Channel 4 to let them know that while he enjoyed being interviewed by youth presenters, they ought not to hire morons, especially not sexist ones.

II – No one left to Ali to

As more people got wise to Baron Cohen, though, his targets had to change. He left the UK for his second season because word had spread, and no-one would agree to be interviewed by him. In the US, happily, former directors of the FBI, among others, hadn’t been watching Channel 4, and were subjected to a healthy dose of subversion. Finally, having run out of appropriate targets, Baron Cohen made a bad decision. Rather than letting the joke die, he decided that the jokes would work just as well with Ali G as a stand-alone character. And so began his fall.

In his latest on-screen venture, as an MP for Staines, there’s nothing but puerility and low-brow kitsch. None of the iconoclasm survives – the process of writing the script before hand seems to have killed his creativity. Thus he is reduced to poking fun at a bored and demeaned Michael Gambon, playing the British Prime Minister.

In the recent press-furore, it has been claimed that he’s the "race equivalent of a gender-bender". For all its journalistic parsimony, this is not a happy comparison. Think of the other recent yoof spoof, which also spawned its own mediocre film – the affable Kevin and Perry, played by Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke. There’s something about Kathy Burke’s bending gender that is a little more dangerous than Baron Cohen’s. In the material which she parodies, there’s at least as much potential as Ali G’s subversive assaults -- if anything can rival the self-importance of the British and American establishment, it’s the egos of their teenage offspring. Kevin and Perry send up the same kinds of codes as Ali G: sex, sex, sex and, um, possibly computer games, without being marked by the bitterness and fatigue of Ali G’s latest offerings. In terms of social dominance, Kathy Burke’s queering turn is the opposite of Ali G’s; a woman pretending to be a man (or a person of colour trying to be white) is a lot more subversive than a man pretending to be a woman.

The closest that Baron Cohen has ever come to this has been his vastly disrespectful, and exceptionally funny, series of ego-deflations at the MTV Europe Awards last year in Frankfurt. In particular, there was this succulent nugget of high comedy, dripping with disdain for authenticity:

"What, Eminem, a white boy trying to steal me culture? That ain’t right. … I like it like me man JayZ. He shoots hoop in the same court as he did when he’s a child. He still buys liquor from the same store as he did when he was a child. Both of which he has had transported to his $20 million mansion in Bel Air. Respeck, JayZ, for keeping it real."

There is great play here, good questions raised about racial authenticity, about what it is to "keep it real", and in the background always the question, "well, is Ali G (not Baron Cohen) actually black, or is it he a white kid trying very hard?". But these moments aren’t, sadly, worth the baggage they come with. The sexism in his MTV performance, always present from his earliest interviews, was just plain wrong. At the beginning of the Awards, Baron Cohen rose from underneath the state, flanked by scantily clad Amazons, white one side, black on the other. After snogging a couple of them, he directed them to snog one another. His reasoning? "It’s a metaphor for world peace, but with lezzas – that was my idea". Not a good one.

Perhaps he’s trying to mock not just youth culture, but the hypersexism of capitalised Black culture. If that’s his aim, there are better ways of doing it.

III – Fear and self-loathing

"But there's another, deeper source to his unmistakably visceral appeal (the cheer goes up to meet him like it would from a fight crowd). The burly weightlifters, high school athlete types, tarty looking girls, beer-swillers and tattooed swaggerers all look to him as some kind of icon of prowess (now and then you saw guys leaning on their cars and drinking in the parking lot before the show, while his routines played out of their tape decks). This bunch is not in any information age vanguard, and must feel the squeeze of Reaganomics and the current recession. Add AIDS, gay rights and -- to them -- the spectral rise of feminism, and you have a '90s version of a lonely crowd."

This is a quote from a 1993 review of an Andrew Dice Clay performance, by LA Times writer, Lawrence Christon. The parallels between Dice Clay and Baron Cohen are important. Both are white men, assuming different personae – "Diceman" and Ali G. Both do well through their misogynist comedy. Both complicate critique by being far more intelligent off-stage than they are on it, able to support an argument that they’re subverting the characters they play, rather than celebrating them. Both seem to have touched something quite profound in popular culture. As I say, people like it when folk more powerful than them are taken down a peg or two, and the Fool has a venerable history.

Ultimately, though, both Dice Clay and Baron Cohen fit nicely into an already misogynist line of comedy masquerading as iconoclasm, mischief, tomfoolery. Ali G hasn’t yet sunk to the depths that, say, P. J. O’Rourke plumbs, behind the mantle of ‘troublemaker’: "How much fame, money, and power does a woman have to achieve on her own before you can punch her in the face?", being an O’Rourke one-liner. But it’s a space that exists, and one in which Baron Cohen seems increasingly comfortable.

IV -- Iz it coz Ize White?

The question that seems to trouble the media at the moment seems to be this: "Is it alright for someone who’s white to make fun of some of the more pernicious elements of Black popular culture?" The answer to this is straightforward. As Tony Benn noted, race (perceived or real) should not authorise criticism. The pernicious elements in capitalised Black culture need to be criticised, pulled down, torn away. Sexism is sexism, and it doesn’t matter who’s doing it – it’s unacceptable.

I don’t know whether Baron Cohen sees himself as a cultural critic. When I was at school with him (and his producer, Dan Mazer), he was someone with a laudable disdain for hierarchy, and a sense of mischief to back it up. But if he does see this iconoclasm as one of the uses of Ali G, it is certainly not the only one. For Ali G is not merely poking fun at black youth culture. He’s cashing in on it. Here, the appropriate cultural comparison isn’t with Andrew "Dice" Clay debates of the early 1990s. Closer to the bone is the controversy over Eminem’s Slim Shady. But while Slim Shady’s "race" is never in question – he remains unequivocally Dr Dre’s white protégé – Ali G trades not just on black culture, but the fear of it.

Issues of authenticity are not, however, the most important questions here, no matter how much they may seem to be. Absent from the current furore of "is he legitimate?" are questions about who constructs this "Black Culture" on which Ali G trades. Sarah Jones has performed some of the most passionate, scathing and perceptive critiques of sexism in Black culture. Her rap, with DJ Vadim, entitled "Your Revolution", cites and updates Gil Scott Heron in fine style:

your revolution will not happen between
these thighs...
the real revolution
ain't about booty size . . .
and though we've lost Biggie Smalls
your Notorious revolution will never allow you to lace no lyrical douche
in my bush . . .
your revolution will not be you
smackin' it up, flippin' it, or rubbin' it down
nor will it take you downtown or
humpin' around . . .
you will not be touching your lips to
my triple dip of french vanilla butter pecan chocolate deluxe
or having Akinyele's dream
a six-foot blowjob machine . . .
your revolution will not happen between
these thighs . . .
your revolution will not see me giving up my behind
so I can get signed
and maybe have someone else write my rhymes
I’m Sarah Jones, not Foxy Brown…
because the revolution, when it
finally comes, is gon' be real

(from The Artist’s Network of Refuse and Resist!)

There is no safe space here for the articulation of black culture with misogyny. Nor does the record industry emerge unscathed. Even sisterhood, that most automatic of black cultural stereotypes, is treated critically. For her trouble, Sarah Jones has been banned from many commercial radio stations, and KBOO, the radio station that first attracted the attention of the Federal Communications Commission in 1999 has had a $7000 fine imposed on it. (Click here if you want to get involved in the campaign on this.)

No such fate awaits Ali G, because, ultimately, his critique isn’t a critique at all. When he went on the Breakfast show on Radio 1, said ‘Fuck’ a couple of times, and made jokes about knobbing Jennifer Lopez, Radio 1 got a slap on the wrists from the authorities. And, of course, there was nothing in Baron Cohen’s that was remotely subversive. It was just a bit silly.

There is another question that’s not getting asked. Where are the artists and comedians of colour doing cultural criticism? As Sarah Jones demonstrates, there are plenty around, and there is fire in their bellies. More anger than Lenny Henry, Richard Blackwood and the cast of Desmond’s. Funnier than The Fosters. And, dare I say it, more socially engaged than Goodness Gracious Me.

In Britain, and this is a particularly British phenomenon, Ali G is able to crowd out a space of multiculturalism. Because, we are told by our friends in the House, Britain is a multicultural society, it seems not to matter much that Baron Cohen isn’t a person of colour. He’s appropriating the space of cultural criticism, facilitating Black cultural critique, and we should both be grateful and colour-blind about it. And for the many who think there’s more to multi-culturalism than second-rate tokenist lovefests involving Meera Syal and Jasper Carrot, Ali G’s continued popularity should be a cause for desperate anger.




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