Sacha Baron Cohen should win the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m not joking; hear me out on this — narrative works of art have always had an extraordinary power to influence public opinion.
Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, famously said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”; public outcry after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle led to congress passing the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and a discourse about the treatment of immigrants in society; and The China Syndrome, in conjunction with the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor two weeks after the film’s release, mobilized much of the citizenry against nuclear energy, resulting in far less electricity being produced from nuclear power than had been planned. The representation of fictional characters in print or on screen allows the viewer to relate to an experience rather than just empathize with it, as they would from a news story or documentary. This makes their involvement with the story more about “what if this were me” than “I feel for him/her,” which is inherently more personal and dynamic. As Woodrow Wilson said about the first film screened at the white house, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, it’s “like history written with lightning.” From Nation through the eighties, dominant cinema managed to reach wide audiences with direct social commentary in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Strangelove, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Network, and Norma Rae. But, unfortunately, the major studios have since largely given up on developing, producing, and distributing anything socially or politically relevant for a mass audience. Except, of course, for the films of Sacha Baron Cohen.
Occasionally a politically active big star will convince a studio (or at least financiers) to make a message movie for a low budget, like George Clooney with The Ides of March. But unlike these films, which appeal only to the kind of viewer who buys his ticket already nodding in agreement with the message, SBC is able to preach to more than just the choir. His lessons aren’t delivered straight on via pedantic finger-wagging; his riotous comedy indirectly conveys these ideas to an unsuspecting audience who thinks they’re just there for belly laughs. It all tastes like dessert rather than medicine, and moviegoers don’t even realize that SBC is inoculating them against racism, intolerance, and subjugation. In Borat, the eponymous character is obviously sexist, anti-Semitic, and a host of other wrong things, but at the same time he is shown to be an innocent and the product of his backward circumstances. We can still like him and root for him to change, as he does in the end when he gives up on his shallow pursuit of Pam Anderson and finds love with a heavy black prostitute. With Bruno, SBC created a materialistic and self-absorbed version of a gay man who goes beyond any stereotype of outrageousness and sexual deviance. But the genius of the movie and the character is that even after witnessing such over-the-edge scenes, as when Bruno graphically mimes having sex with the spirit of his dead boyfriend, you are still with him and sympathetic by the end of the film when he is being abused by homophobes. The parting lesson here is pretty clear: Even the most offensive gay man you can imagine is a human being and deserving of acceptance by society.
With his first fully scripted film, The Dictator, which opens today and I (and New York film critic David Edelstein) found hilarious, SBC swings his comic lash not on the back of ridiculous and corrupt dictatorships so much as the first-world governments that claim to reject undemocratic and corrupt regimes yet still help to create and support new ones when it serves their purposes, usually by providing oil. Further, and even more satisfyingly, he takes a whack at the hypocrisy of our own government. At one point, his character, Admiral General Aladeen, lists all of the great things a dictator can do that a democratic leader cannot, such as torture, rigging elections, bailing out big businesses with taxpayer money, etc.; you get the idea and so does the audience. I spoke to Larry Charles, the director of Borat, Bruno, and The Dictator, who explained his and SBC’s deft mix of comedy and message: “All three of these movies are burlesques and that’s a way to make these very difficult complex issues palatable to a mainstream audiences: by wrapping them in outrageous humor. With The Dictator, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, everybody thinks this is crazy and absurd and ridiculous and everyone can have a very cathartic laugh at this.”
While many winners of the Nobel Peace Prize are rewarded for resolving a conflict or directly easing the struggle of the oppressed and downtrodden, others — such as Elie Wiesel in 1986 and President Obama in 2009 — won for communicating ideas. So why shouldn’t the Nobel committee bestow its award on a film star who uses his comedic genius to advocate for tolerance and fairness? Okay, maybe not the Nobel, but when most of the movies that dominate the box office inculcate the message that good overcomes bad through superior strength (like, say, the firepower of a naval battleship), we should really appreciate Sacha Baron Cohen for giving us some entertainment that’s actually good for us.