Sacha Baron Cohen’s rollicking comedy about a tinpot tyrant is more a send-up of Americans than Arabs.
With The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen may have moved from mockumentary to farce, but this rollicking, topical comedy, about the ruler of a fictional north African nation who loses his power and beard on a trip to America, is a close cinematic cousin to Ali G, Borat and Bruno.
Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, a tinpot tyrant who likes his detractors executed, his women flown in from Hollywood, and his nuclear weapons pointy. With his rogue state Wadiya months away from producing enriched uranium, Aladeen goes to the US, Amazonian guards in tow, to convince the UN that President Barack Obama’s threats of a preemptive strike are misguided. But the general’s plans are scuppered as his scheming older brother Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has him kidnapped, replacing him with a dim-witted body double and striking deals to sell off Wadiyan oil rights to Exxon, BP and the Chinese government. Meanwhile, Aladeen escapes from his would-be torturer after insulting his instruments (‘An anal umbrella? Where’s the splash guard? You’re going to murder me and your white shirt’). He is taken in by a hairy vegan who mistakes him for a Wadiyan dissident and puts him to work in her refugee-staffed organic grocery store in Williamsburg.
The Dictator is pure fiction. There’s no hoodwinking of celebrities or members of the public as there was in Baron Cohen’s previous films. But from the narrative structure (typecast foreigner goes to America with a sidekick, has cataclysmic experience, ends up alone and despondent, then has a catharsis) to the gross nude scenes and the mocking of American preoccupations, The Dictator covers well-worn ground. And just like Baron Cohen’s previous alter egos, the megalomaniacal, misogynist and ostentatious Aladeen has predictably been described by critics as a racist and offensive character.
Baron Cohen has been accused by Arab-Americans of perpetuating a Hollywood tradition of portraying Middle Eastern men as uncouth cartoon villains. A rather bizarre complaint came from comedian Dean Obeidallah who, in a CNN column, called The Dictator a ‘minstrel show’. Obeidallah’s main peeve seems to be not that Arab culture is ridiculed in the film, which he thinks it is, but that brown-skinned people are not benefitting from it. Obeidallah wants to send a message to the entertainment industry: ‘If you are going to mock and ridicule us for profit, can you at least cast Arabs and Indians to play us? And while we’re at it, why not include us in the creative process as co-writers and directors?’
But the cries of racism and calls for blaxploitation are off target, because Baron Cohen has, as usual, created a one-dimensional, ludicrously stereotyped character in order to hold up a mirror to, and poke fun at, the people with whom that character interacts, namely Americans.
In New York, General Aladeen meets a gung-ho security guard who recommends that he visits the Empire State Building ‘before you or one of your cousins takes it down’. When Aladeen tells the security guard that he is not actually an Arab, the security guard says: ‘You’re all Arabs to me’, he says, ‘the blacks, the Jews, those blue, tree-hugging queers in Avatar’.
Aladeen freaks out a couple of middle-American tourists during a helicopter sight-seeing ride where he and his sidekick, exiled nuclear scientist Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), have a loud, arm-waving conversation in mock Arabic (as in a similar scene in Borat Baron Cohen is actually speaking Hebrew). The wholesome American couple can only make out words like ‘Statue of Liberty’, ‘9/11’, ‘Osama’ and ‘kaboom’.
Through Aladeen’s romance with hippy-ish organic shopkeeper, Zoey (Anna Faris), The Dictator mocks the hyper tolerance of urban crusties and their fondness for strictures. With a mesh of unwritten rules on what to consume, say and think, Zoey’s eco-terrorised staff can also easily be tamed under Aladeen’s temporary regime as he takes over the shop to help it win a contract to cater for a UN event.
When Aladeen busts into the UN with plans of tearing up a document that would declare Wadiya a democracy, he gives the gathered international dignitaries a speech about the virtues of dictatorships that is full of double meanings. In his country, he claims, ‘the top one per cent controls all the wealth and a dictator can declare war with impunity, even on the wrong country’. The speech, of course, ends up reflecting the political climate in the US.
So, yes, the humour of The Dictator relies on recognisable stereotypes – but not so much about Arabs as about Americans. Sure, the film mocks Arab dictators. For instance, Aladeen gets inappropriately excited about visiting a rape centre and he finds the idea of women’s education endearing. ‘It’s like seeing a monkey on roller skates’, he says. ‘It means nothing to them, but it’s so adorable for us.’ But then, as recent events have shown, Arab people themselves have no problem with sending up their unelected leaders. The comedic target of The Dictator is not Middle Eastern people but Americans who are too blinkered, paranoid or PC to relate to them in a relaxed and equal way.