What did Borat learn from Mississippi?
The Madison County Herald
When I attended a Sunday afternoon showing of the controversial comedy "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," I expected to find only a few people in the theater.
To my surprise, the "Borat" theater was almost filled to capacity, and I had trouble finding a seat.
It was only showing at Pearl's Tinseltown theater opening weekend, so everyone who read the reviews declaring it the "funniest movie ever made" piled in to watch Borat, a Kazakhstan journalist sent to the United States to learn about American religious, political and racial issues.
Pamela Anderson is one of Borat's first cultural introductions, and after watching an episode of "Baywatch," he begins a nationwide quest in a used ice cream truck to meet and marry her.
Along the way, he encounters a number of nonfictional, unsuspecting Americans, some who resist embracing his cultural practices and others who hospitably welcome him, like the Jackson television station WAPT, who granted Borat a live interview and cut it short after realizing they had become part of the joke.
WAPT wasn't Borat's only Mississippi stop. He is apparently very interested in our state. In the film, Borat also visits an Apostolic Pentecostal camp meeting service in Mississippi, where church members speak in tongues and dance as part of their worship.
Attended by 3rd District U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, who is identified in the film, Borat's church visitation has been discussed by several Mississippi church members on www.everyonesconnect-ed.com.
Some thought it was humorous. Others found it disrespectful. Some blogged that Borat was allowed to attend because they were told the film crew was shooting a documentary on religion in the United States. They were also required to sign a contract relinquishing all privileges and video rights.
The Natchez Democrat also reported details of a 2005 Borat visit that didn't make the film. Natchez residents allowed "Borat" to film a dinner party segment at Landsdowne, a historic antebellum home with homeowner George Matthews Marshall, Marshall's relatives, and members of the Historic Natchez Foundation.
The group said they realized Borat wasn't legit when a woman dressed like a prostitute arrived, and Borat seemed to be trying to coax them into making racist statements. They didn't take the bait, and the dinner party segment was replaced by another similar dinner party scene that occurred at The Magnolia Mansion on Secession Drive in Birmingham, Ala.
Another Mississippi segment that wasn't part of the film can be found on YouTube. In it, Borat learns about wine tasting at Jackson's University Club from two members of the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Vine, a nonprofit organization for wine enthusiasts with chapters across the United States.
When an African-American man named Robert pours wine into Borat's glass, Borat asks the men if he is a slave. When they adamantly insist that he is not, Borat asks why slavery ended.
"Well, it was a law that was passed that they can no longer be used as slaves, which is good. That's a good thing. Yeah, it is a good thing for them," responds the man, who appears to be in his late 60s or early 70s.
"But not so much for you?" Borat asks.
"You're right," the man says. And the clip abruptly ends.
It's hard to discern whether the man was being an outright racist or whether he was hospitably agreeing with a person he believed was from an entirely different culture and who didn't understand what he was saying.
I might not question it if he hadn't proved to be hospitable throughout the interview, humoring Borat's traditional kiss on both cheeks and 10 minutes of Letterman-style antics during which Borat can't grasp the concept of holding a wine glass.
In 2004, Borat had another notable Mississippi encounter when he interviewed James Broadwater, a Mississippi congressional candidate. The segment aired on HBO's "Da Ali G. Show," and in the clip, a softspoken Broadwater calmly answers questions about his evangelical Christian faith and anti-abortion stance.
Borat says a number of ridiculous things to incite ridiculous answers, such as, "If I want to go to this place, heaven, what religion must I choose to go there?"
Broadwater responds: "The Christian Bible says that Jesus Christ is the only way to go to heaven."
Borat asks: "The Jews, will they go heaven or hell?"
Broadwater answers: "Well, I would have to say that they would go to hell."
Broadwater's comments, while understood by those who share his religious beliefs, were not understood by others across the nation who do not. Wikipedia reports that Broadwater later posted a letter on his website denouncing "Da Ali G. Show," and blaming the "liberal anti-God media."
Based on the amount of time Borat has spent here shooting segments for his movie, it seems Mississippi is a state Borat is trying hard to figure out. Borat, who is satirically anti-Semitic and culturally ignorant throughout the film, is a character played by comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, who shares few, if any, similarities.
Cohen is a devout Jew born in London to an Orthodox Jewish family, and here's another Mississippi connection. Wikipedia reports that while studying history at Christ's College in Cambridge, Cohen wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American Civil Rights movement, focusing particularly on the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia.
I'm not sure how many other states Cohen has filmed "Borat" segments in. For all I know, he could have shot more in New York, Texas or California than Mississippi, but he obviously has an interest in the people and culture of our own state, if only from a comedic standpoint.
And just what can we learn, if anything, from Borat? I think his visit prompts several questions:
Does Borat choose Mississippi because he suspects he'll find a number of sexist, racist, religious zealots here that will give him material, and are his suspicions false or accurate?
Is he targeting Mississippi, or does Mississippi sometimes wear a bullseye?
Should we take measures to change the outward perception of our state, or have we been doing that for quite sometime?
After all, in almost all of the segments, the people of Mississippi were gracious and hospitable to a person they believed was from an entirely different culture.
So I guess another question is: What, if anything, did Borat learn from us?
"Borat" opened at number one in the U.S., taking in $26.4 million on a limited release of 880 screens. It's now showing in all metro area theaters.
The movie is funny, but will only be funny to those who get satire. In other words, if you didn't understand that Archie Bunker was the real "Meathead" and are offended by the boundary-crossing comedy of Dave Chappelle, "Southpark," Bill Maher and even Tom Green, Norman Lear and Mel Brooks, don't buy a ticket.
But if you want to see an edgy, satirical comedy that shows little restraint in our politically correct world, I recommend it.
Cohen may have angered some with his tactics, but in his defense, he doesn't really force people to say and do stupid things. His schtick is presenting something offensive and allowing people to react. You can oppose and refuse it, or you can say something stupid and give him the footage he seeks.
WAPT handled their Borat encounter with dignity, and the church members shared their belief in Christ's love with Borat rather than throwing him out of the service.
Other Borat "victims" haven't been as smart. And if Borat happened to unearth the sexist, racist within them for the world to see, I don't feel terribly sorry for them.
An added note: Some may be surprised to learn that Cohen played the French race car driver in "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," with Will Ferrell, as well as Ali G. in "Da Ali G. Show," and is engaged to actress Isla Fisher, the crazy redhead in "Wedding Crashers," who has eyes for Vince Vaughn's character in the film.