The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan
A year after the show’s debut, the Evening Standard described Sacha as “more remote than the Queen Mother and twice as famous.” Reportedly one reason he brought Ali G, Bruno and Borat to the United States was that he had become so recognizable in Britain he could no longer pull off his hoax journalism. When Sacha’s own Da Ali G Show, co-authored and produced by Dan Mazer, premiered in Britain in 2000, it was an instant success. Ali G Indahouse, Sacha’s first major foray into film, was the highest grossing British film of 2002, despite reviews ranging from tepid to savage.
But when HBO launched the American version of the show in 2003, it got off to a slow start with less than a million viewers and mixed reviews, some damning it as tasteless. Many Americans didn’t get the nuances of his humor; others may have been offended by his reference to 9/11 as “the terrible events of 7/11.” Sacha “very cleverly picks on some of the cruder British stereotypes of America and makes them worse,” observes Peter Mandler, professor of modern cultural history at Cambridge. Also invisible to most American eyes is Sacha’s incorporation of edgy Israeli touches. When Sacha visited his brother Amnon, who was living in Israel in 2002, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz noted, “Baron Cohen’s Hebrew is excellent and he has a good understanding of Israeli culture.” This is evident in the film Borat: Sacha uses his fluent Hebrew, peppered with Israeli slang and occasional Polish, to pass for Kazakh.
There is little reason for Americans to recognize just how unusual Sacha is among British Jews. The Jewish communities in the United States and the United Kingdom differ in significant ways. British Jews tend to be more observant than their American counterparts, in part because the community is smaller and concentrated in upper middle class “Jewish ghettos” and because the British chief rabbi is Orthodox. The influence of Jews on British popular culture is also much less pronounced. Vivian Baron Cohen says he’s “always amazed” that in the United States at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur “there are programs on the TV, radio, signs everywhere. It’s a more accepting society.” Sylvia Paskin, a British writer who studies the portrayal of Jews in film, claims there’s a “more assured sense of what it means to be Jewish” in the United States, while in Britain, there’s still some ambiguity about what it means to be both British and Jewish. Many British Jews, she says, want to be “British, polite, fit in, not draw attention to themselves.” Their identity has been shaped by a culture where even those who’ve made it into the upper-middle and upper classes have to confront a long-standing undercurrent of anti-Semitism. Paskin suggests that Sacha’s “in-your-face” portrayal of the anti-Semitic Borat stems from “a need to make a very, very bold statement, because so much is covert here.”
Sacha isn’t the only one of his generation of Baron Cohens to challenge American audiences with negative portrayals of their countrymen. Ash, Vivian’s youngest son, who recalls being chased by Neo-Nazis in London as a kid, earned a degree in experimental psychology from Essex University before heading to Hollywood in the 1980s. He enrolled in film school and at age 21 persuaded Richard Harris to take a day off from filming Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven to star in his first student film.
Although he was expelled from film school (he says for shooting a film about a dominatrix in 16 mm film instead of the Super 8 mm film that was assigned), he managed to get a footing in the business. His first feature, Bang, about a woman impersonating a Los Angeles police officer, was named one of the Top 10 films of 1997 by the Los Angeles Times and critic Roger Ebert. Oliver Stone was so impressed that he wrote a letter of support to help Ash secure a work visa. As Ash told Esquire, “After he saw Bang, Oliver says, ‘We’ve got to get you legal.’”