Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator

I have been a big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. His Borat (2006) really pushed the boundaries on immigration humor.  The lead immigrant character, Borat, was extremely unorthodox, from our vantage point; he made out with his prostitute sister and was strongly anti-Semitic.  This humorous look at cultural diversity, was cutting edge enough that it made us confront the reality that diversity includes some nasty habits.  In a way we could laugh at, Borat forced us to confront ourselves.

Bruno (2009) likewise took us on a serious and boundary-pushing explorations. Cohen's over-the-top character was so over-the-top with gayness that gays looked bad. But the real target seemed to be the closed nature of the straight world and likely, thus, the movie-goers themselves.  At one point he had his character make out with another man in an ultimate fighting cage. The audience anger and violence brutally exposed the intersection of masculinity and homophobia. 

So it was with great eagerness that I saw The Dictator (2012).  This time, Cohen had promised to put us face to face with Islam.  And while our fear of terrorists and dictators, got full airing, the word "Islam" never appeared.  Those we fear were easily liberated once their Dictator leader decided to implement democracy.  It was like a neo-conservative dream where we simply remove a dictator and democracy flourishes. This film never discusses the advance of militant theocracy, it is whacky humor.

In the end, amazingly, PC preachiness goes overboard in this film.  The Dictator falls in love with gender-neutral vegan feminist peace activist who works at an organic market.  This ex-dictator was really a softy at heart.  When he falls in love with her, he sees the errors of his ways and adopts her liberal agenda. When the Dictator liberates his nation, he reads an indictment of real dictatorship, that of America.  He even uses the tired Occupy Wall Street rhetoric about the 1 percent oppressing the rest of us, in his tirade against American dictatorship.  The film makes the impact of Islam on politics seem ephemeral, and instead indicts America.  

To be sure, this very funny film sometimes leans near the cutting edge.  In one scene the Dictator plays a video game in which he reenacts the slaughter of Israeli activists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  But this action just reflects the whims of a whacky individual tyrant.  The also Jewish Charlie Chaplin warned the West about Hitler in The Great Dictator.   With Chaplin we laughed at Hitler, but learned he killed Jews and that the Germans were a force to fear.  Herein we have a lone loveable portrayal of a dictator with no connection to ideology, whose anti-Semitism is only a joke; thus it teaches that when we topple or convert individual silly dictators, all conflict will be resolved.  

I expected more from Cohen both as a Jewish filmmaker and as previously interesting killer of sacred cows.  We should take culture seriously.  In its failure to do so, The Dictator earns culturist thumbs down.

John K. Press, Ph.D. is the author of Culturism: A Word, A Value, Our Future. has more information.