Not everyone is psyched about Sacha Baron Cohen's latest comic creation.
With The Dictator invading theaters today, the funnyman is taking heat from Arab-American groups who say his new alter ego isn't so much funny as a hurtful caricature that pokes fun at their culture and foments the worst prejudices against the Muslim community.
One such critic is Nadia Tonova, director of the National Network for Arab American Communities, who was outspoken in her criticism of Cohen after his infamous red carpet appearance at the Oscars when—dressed as buffoonish despot Admiral General Aladeen from the fictional Republic of Wadiya—he spilled powder purported to be Kim Jong Il's ashes all over Ryan Seacrest.
With The Dictator now in general release, she reiterated her problem with the portrayal, even though she has not seen the film and has no plans to.
"I have not seen the film, but based on the trailer and interviews that I have seen him do in character, it really seems to be that it's perpetuating a negative stereotype against Arabs and therefore Arab Americans," Tonova tells E! News. "And I feel it's harmful to the discourse, especially these days when we are seeing the number of profiling incidents here in the U.S. against Arab Americans."
Cohen's mockumentaries featuring his Borat and Brüno characters both stirred controversy for toying around with stereotypes, even though the comedian has previously stated that his goal was to expose bigotry. In Borat's case, the fictitious Kazakh journalist's habit of uttering anti-Semitic remarks prompted concern from the Anti-Defamation League that people might not be in on the joke and that it would actually reinforce negative attitudes toward Jews.
Tonova argued the same might apply to her community.
"I don't find it funny, I don't see the humor and it's unproductive discourse," she added.
Arab American comedian Dean Obeidallah attacked The Dictator on similar grounds, calling it a "modern-day minstrel show" and noting that if he portrayed an African-American in the same light, there'd be a huge outcry.
"What would the reaction be if a white actor in blackface mocked African-American culture? Or if an actor of Arab heritage pitched a movie about the leader of a fictitious Jewish state in which he would portray the Jewish leader and showcase the worst stereotypes of Jews? Is there any chance that film would get the green light from a Hollywood studio?" he wrote in a commentary on CNN.com.
One point worth noting is that while the comic actor's previous films have mixed in people's real reactions to his buffoonery, in this case The Dictator is largely a scripted affair.
For his part, Cohen appeared on Today this morning from the Cannes Film Festival—only the third time he's ever been interviewed as himself—and didn't address the controversy. But he did acknowledge that his past big-screen forays haven't sat well with a lot of people, including a slew who've actually taken legal action over his hijinks.
"Well, the movies that I did up till now, they involved real people. So we wanted to limit the exposure for, kind of, lawsuits. At the moment, I think I have the Guinness World Record for the most sued actor in history," he told Ann Curry. "But basically if people saw that I was me and that Borat was not a real person beforehand, they could injunct the movie and shut the movie down. This is a different kind of movie."
When asked who the Supreme Leader is satirizing in The Dictator, Sacha explained his intentions.
"Well, firstly it's a comedy movie, so the movie is there to be as funny as it can be…but the subjects of the satire are these preposterous dictators who are feared in their own countries and rule using violence and oppression but are ludicrous characters," he said. "And the great thing is at the moment, they're being overthrown. So anything you can do to mock them and undermine that kind of false authority I think is a positive thing."
No word whether that's enough to mollify his critics. And we'll know by the end of the weekend whether audiences embraced Cohen's "Col. Gadhafi figure" once box office numbers come in.
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