The boys done well.
With just one joke, he has risen from the depths of Channel 4s
late Friday night schedule to the driving seat of Madonnas limousine,
the MTV awards and even Tony Benns fireplace. He
is an impresario of schoolboy humour, a master of a naughty iconoclasm
that deflates the pompous, and scorns the self-obsessed. Hes
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
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
Here, theres fear
of youth and black culture, powerful people squirming, Ali Gs
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
"Like, yeah, when
Im hanging with my bitches, we
"Wait a second, you cant call women "bitches".
Its thoroughly disrespectful."
"No buts. Its wrong."
Baron Cohens 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
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, hadnt 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
In his latest on-screen
venture, as an MP for Staines, theres 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 hes 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. Theres something about
Kathy Burkes bending gender that is a little more dangerous
than Baron Cohens. In the material which she parodies, theres
at least as much potential as Ali Gs subversive assaults --
if anything can rival the self-importance of the British and American
establishment, its 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 Gs latest offerings. In terms of social dominance,
Kathy Burkes queering turn is the opposite of Ali Gs;
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 aint right.
I like it like me man JayZ. He shoots hoop in the same court as
he did when hes 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
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 arent,
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? "Its a metaphor for world peace,
but with lezzas that was my idea". Not a good one.
Perhaps hes trying
to mock not just youth culture, but the hypersexism of capitalised
Black culture. If thats his aim, there are better ways of doing
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 theyre
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
hasnt yet sunk to the depths that, say, P. J. ORourke
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 ORourke one-liner.
But its a space that exists, and one in which Baron Cohen seems
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 whos 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
doesnt matter whos doing it its unacceptable.
I dont 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. Hes cashing in on it. Here, the appropriate
cultural comparison isnt with Andrew "Dice" Clay debates
of the early 1990s. Closer to the bone is the controversy over Eminems
Slim Shady. But while Slim Shadys "race" is never
in question he remains unequivocally Dr Dres 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
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
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
Im Sarah Jones, not Foxy Brown
because the revolution, when it
finally comes, is gon' be real
(from The Artists
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
No such fate awaits Ali
G, because, ultimately, his critique isnt 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 Cohens that was remotely subversive. It
was just a bit silly.
There is another question
thats 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 Desmonds.
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 isnt a person of colour. Hes 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 theres more to multi-culturalism than second-rate
tokenist lovefests involving Meera Syal and Jasper Carrot, Ali Gs
continued popularity should be a cause for desperate anger.