I already watched The Dictator prior to starting this blog. I didn't exactly care for it. Even so, of films released in the past year, The Dictator and Zero Dark Thirty probably gained the most media exposure of any movies that prominently feature Arab characters, the Middle East, or paper-thin parodies thereof such as this. So as much as it pained me to do it—and it did—I knew that if I wanted this blog to ever attain any real relevance, I had to grit my teeth for the onerous task of actually watching this jejune piece of shit again.
Compared to The Great Dictator
The Dictator quite clearly serves as a spiritual remake of Chaplin's classic comedy The Great Dictator. Both films have their hearts in the right place, satirizing those who want power for enslavement and personal gain rather than to better the world. They both have the same basic plot structure: an unjust ruler loses his fictional empire to the unwitting usurpation of a naïve lookalike; an opinionated, independent-spirited woman brings the main character through his arc, encouraging him to use his power for good. Both end with a rousing—albeit tonally incongruous—speech that almost reaches through the fourth wall, highlighting contemporary political injustices and exhorting the viewers to work to make a difference.
These similarities only make the chasm in quality between the films more obvious. I believe very strongly that The Great Dictator's satire and its unforgettable, lapidary closing speech helped motivate America—then at peace with Nazi Germany on paper—to fight the Axis powers in the name of justice and compassion. With a peroration that practically flings its viewers out the door with a motivation that could shame any commencement speaker, I really believe The Great Dictator ultimately changed the world for the better.
|Even in Chaplin's eyes, one sees his genuine passion and certitude, something Baron Cohen fails to evoke.|
|Sacha Baron Cohen caps the film with a wonderfully trenchant oration. I just wish it took place in a better film.|
Arabs in The Dictator
I don't have a problem with Sacha Baron Cohen. I enjoyed Borat. In fact, I respect him tremendously for his work in Da Ali G Show, using comedic personae to lure his interviewees into confessing their biases and bigotries. Even as a hired gun, I thought he did impressive work in Hugo and Talladega Nights. His upcoming performance as Freddie Mercury, the singularly greatest rock star who ever lived, has me tremendously excited.
In this interview with Terry Gross, Baron Cohen asserts that he didn't intend Arabs or Muslims as the target of the satire.
You know, and also we wanted to really make it clear particularly after the Arab spring that this was in no way a parody of Arabs. This was a parody of people who oppress Arabs and people who oppress other people around the world.
I believe him. I can see from the film that he intended to satirize dictators (as he said) and American attitudes of Arabs rather than the Arabs themselves. Aladeen clearly borrows most of his mannerisms from Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. The film builds its plot from Hussein's real-life proclivity for body doubles. At one point in the film, Aladeen specifically says, "I'm not an Arab," and he clearly doesn't adhere to Islam.
Even in light of what Aladeen says, the resulting film applies longstanding Arab stereotypes to every Wadiyan character on the screen, while at the same time making only a perfunctory effort to show American attitudes thereto. The satire fails in its intended target and falls right on the Arab people.
Although Wadiya sits south of the Middle East, the country sounds exactly like an Arab word. Its people look exactly like Arabs and embody several Arab stereotypes. The Wadiyan language looks exactly like made-up squiggles made to look like Arabic or Farsi. Aladeen, Wadiya, and the other Wadiyans look like a duck, walk like a duck, and quack like a duck. What else can we conclude?
|The Arabs-as-terrorists stereotype right here.|
|I mean, really, look at this and try not to think "some Arab country" or Persia.|
Still, one might say that one character and one place does not make for a vilification of a people. That brings me to my next, most important point: Jason Mantzoukas' character Nadal.
|Nadal looks just like everyone else… and he wants to blow up America.|
Nadal's inclusion speaks to perhaps the most deleterious and enduring of post-2001 Arab stereotypes: any "normal" Arab you see on the street could conceivably sympathize with the enemy. The long-running, successful right-wing darling 24 became infamous for its use of this trope. NCIS—a perennial Nielsen juggernaut and currently the #1 show in America—invokes this stereotype nearly every time an Arab appears on-screen. While Arab terrorists indeed usually masquerade as "average Joes" to execute their atrocities, to assume the converse falsely, unjustly writes off 3.5 million peaceful, law-abiding Arab-Americans as possible sleepers. Common sense alone should tell most people that the vast majority of Arab-Americans pose the same threat to America as windmills did to Don Quixote. Judging Arab-Americans by the misdeeds of an extremely small subset thereof makes them—and in fact all other Americans—less safe, not more.
What about other citizens of Wadiya? We only see one scene featuring them significantly. Aladeen had exiled them all during his reign, and a run-in in a Wadiyan restaurant nearly ends in a mob of refugees beheading him. Of course they hate him, and for good reason. As with Nadal, he had them exiled and nearly killed. Still, aside from the major characters, this remains all we see of the Wadiyans: vindictive executioners in the making who brandish scimitars and meat cleavers in a Brooklyn restaurant.
|Almost every Wadiyan in the film in one scene, getting ready to murder.|
|Our first figure shot of Aladeen, dressed much like Farr below.|
At times, Aladeen seems most reminiscent of the oil sheik stereotype, played straight by Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia and later for laughs by Jamie Farr's profligate, oblivious sheik of the Cannonball Run films. He even wears the refulgent white robes associated with moneyed Arabs.
|Lebanese-American Jamie Farr plays the Sheik in Cannonball Run, a walking stereotype… however innocuous the intent.|
Aladeen gags almost invariably involve an element of misogyny and anti-Semitism. Considering the barbaric practice of honor killings, the deplorable treatment of women by the Taliban, and the ongoing conflict in Israel, I found it irresponsible of Baron Cohen to play so strongly to these stereotypes through Aladeen. In reference to the sickening pre-Islamic Arab tribal practice of infanticide, we even see a gag where Aladeen prepares to discard a newborn baby girl.
|"It's a girl… Where's the trash can?"|
That Baron Cohen so heavily uses existing over-generalizations of Arabs makes Aladeen's additional invidious quirks all the more unsettling, like this song off the soundtrack that implies incest and pedophilia.
|As impostors of tyrants go, Efawadh doesn't rank among the brightest.|
|Reilly as racist asshole Clayton.|
Even without my revulsion at the treatment of Arabs in this film, I really simply didn't find it very funny. Borat worked in part because of Baron Cohen's performance, but Borat Sagdiyev's appearances on Da Ali G Show gave Baron Cohen a vaudeville-like arena in which to hone the character. Borat also had a versatility that allowed Baron Cohen to both act the stooge and allow others to play off him, such as Ken Davitian or the dozens of non-actors. The Dictator has Baron Cohen taking the comedic reins almost entirely. Aside from Mantzoukas playing off Baron Cohen as a beleaguered straight man, the script shuts out all but a few opportunities for other actors to show their chops.
|Aasif Mandvi, a personal hero of mine, appears briefly in a rare exception.|
Along with the lack of development of Aladeen relative to Borat, Baron Cohen's hogging of the gags serves to make the one joke of the one-joke comedy all the more glaring.
The film does have its good points. It has a great soundtrack (aside from the song I posted above). I found the subplot with Kingsley's character and several corrupt, rapacious business leaders a nice additional bit of satire. I won't deny that the film squeezed a few occasional chuckles out of me. I just wish it did a better job making its intended point.
To sum it all up, I applaud the apparent intent: to skewer dictators, ignorant Americans, and large corporations who prey on the common people. I simply don't think the humor or the satire succeeded in their goal. More than anything, I hope from this film Baron Cohen learns a salutary lesson about the way a poor script can create such a wide gulf between intent and result.