Dean Obeidallah: "Sacha Cohen's movie is a modern-day minstrel show"

Comedian and former attorney Dean Obeidallah, co-director of the previously-Boinged documentary project, "The Muslims Are Coming!," is not a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie, "The Dictator." Regarding Cohen as "Gen. Shabazz Aladeen," the leader of a fictitious Arab country, Obeidallah writes: "Cohen, who is not of Arab heritage, plays this Arab character while sporting a long fake beard and speaking in a strong Arabic accent, which would be fine, except the character is showcasing the worst stereotypes of Arabs." (


    1. Yeah, and it’s ethnically offensive.  Like that wasn’t going to be the first club out of the bag.  I wish he was going to run out of material before he ran out of audience, but alas.  If he only knows how to make a point by playing the fool, then he doesn’t know enough about social satire to be making a living at it.

  1. SBC plays to stereotypes, the purpose is to reveal the true prejudice of others. He is no more anti Arab or Muslim than he is anti gay, anti Kazakhstan, or anti south-London youth. He’s more intelligent and educated than his detractors.

        1. Ali G In Da House was utter cr@p precisely because it lacked the ‘gotcha’ interviews that made him so popular in the first place. Ali G (the series) worked by having an absurd charcter thought of as believable by the people he interviewed. The movie took away that crucial element (reality) and replaced it with a total fantasy where no one thought he was unbelievable, and the character just came off as an offensive stereotype rather than a foil for exposing people’s own prejudices and ignorance.

          1.  I’m not offering a review of the merets of the film, just pointing out that he (SBC) isn’t just one kind of filmmaker.

            For the record I liked parts of the movie and felt it was heavily inspired by Black Sheep (Chris Farley) with some Cheech & Chong influences but its failure was in being overproduced (like someone threw a bucket of money at “that Ali G thing” in a hurry to try and cash in before it was over) and its attempt to be too broad (unlike the Cheech & Chong movies).

    1. SBC claims to play to stereotypes because he lacks the skill/wit to make comedy in any other way. He is a master of the cheap shot without revealing anything about anybody that we didn’t already know. 
      He has a fan following who like to think that they ‘get’ him, when in reality they are the ones who have been ‘gotten’.

  2. Well, playing up offensive stereotypes is kind of his thing. Though there’s usually a strong argument to be made that he uses those stereotypes in order to mock the bigots who actually believe them. I can’t really opine on whether this crosses a line beyond what he did in “Borat” and “Brüno” since I haven’t seen the film.

  3. I didn’t want to like Cohen – but I do. Ali G and Borat were both brilliant. I will have to see the film and judge for myself.

  4. so the issue the author takes is that the movie(which the author has not seen) would be BETTER if mr.cohen had asked arabs what kind of arab jokes he should make. and to prove this the evidence he presents is that “italians made godfather… and it was good”. the point i would like to make is that without The Godfather there would be no Jersey Shore. And without ‘cheech and chong’ cheech wouldn’t own millions worth in central american art (i think he’d neither have the money nor the cultural interest). nobody can always be funny and funny is a culture thing(see german comedians). In short, much ado about nothing.

    P.S. i personally feel i make the funniest jokes about my own ethnicity

    1. This movie is much more in keeping with Jersey Shore than The Godfather. Or are you saying that the show was a GOOD thing and not minstrelsy?

  5. When I saw these words:  
    “…judging from the trailer and Cohen’s comments promoting the film while dressed as the film’s star…” 
    in the first sentence, I stopped reading.  I wish CNN would publish my reviews of movies I haven’t seen.

  6. He was a minstrel show when he did Bruno, too.  If he had any stones, he’d lampoon his own background as readily as he does everyone else’s.  But though he’s quick to trot out a leather daddy caricature through a Midwestern shopping mall to show off how bigoted Americans are, he would never, for example, wear a hijab to the Western Wall. 

    This is because he is a coward who’s willing to incite ugly hatred for “laughs”, as long as it’s not hatred against his own heritage.

    1. I would argue that if any group should get license to make jokes about anti-Semitism it should be the Jews. I mean, that’s been the basis for much of Mel Brooks’ career.

      1. By that reasoning, he could also make a film lampooning the Welsh. Of course, nobody would go to see it.

        1. The only time I’ve seen a satire of the Welsh was in Cryptonomicon, and that was a pretty minor sideplot. Probably more text as a whole than most novels, but really only like 2% of that one. 

        2. No need. The Welsh are lampooned every time they appear on British television. I challenege you to find a welsh charcter on british TV who is *not* there for comedy relief, or is in a role where his accent does not prevent you from taking him/her seriously.

      1. Perhaps there have been enough jokes made about the Jews already?

        And yes, Zohan was an Excellent movie, it took the mickey out of the Jews and the Arabs, all with a laugh and a serving of hummus

    2. Talk about missing the point.  In the Bruno movie he lampoons the intolerance of the orthodox Jews in Jerusalem.

      Why would he go to the Western Wall in a hijab? How is that lampooning anybody and what do people (presumably) harmlessly going about their spiritual business need to be lampooned for?

      Does he lampoon Americans for being Americans? No, he lampoons some of those who voluntarily display how bigoted some Americans can be.

      What other examples of inciting ugly hatred do you think you can citing apart from the ‘cowardly ugly hatred’ of American bigots?  

  7. I hear from people that SBC’s a genius and he’s really ‘not like that’ as a person.  Don Rickles was a famous insult comic who verbally abused people for laughs.  An aggressive jerk who’s got a mic and you haven’t.  Everyone who knew him said he was actually a warm, generous and loving guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly.  And there’s no reason to disbelieve that.  But when your legacy is decades of hollering and insults, can you say that, no matter your personal character, you left the world better than you found it?

    1.  I remember when Andy Kaufman was a divisive subject.

      Maybe you either get it/like it or you don’t?

      1. I remember Andy as well.  I don’t recall that he made a habit of tricking people and holding them up to ridicule.  The joke was mostly on himself.

        1.  The specific mechanics aren’t the same; but Andy himself and via his proxy Tony Clifton (which was sometimes his writing partner Bob Zmuda) worked a lot to upset the audience in a lot of different ways.

          From directed insults, a Clifton thing, to just bizarre behavior like reading The Great Gatsby to an audience thinking they were going to get regular standup.

          The point is: His act upset a lot of people, but now you’re hard pressed to find people to be critical. Now everyone wants to go on like they were in on it 30 years ago (just like everyone I went to high school with was, apparently, a punk despite me and three other people at my school being hassled every day by most of them).

    2. You could choose not to go to a Don Rickles show. You can choose to not see a SBC movie.

      The burden of offence is on you, and your question must be hypothetical, because it’s intrinsicly unanswerable.

  8. It’s a bit sad how the real point of SBC’s films are lost on most people.

    The genius is that he’s making joke of bigotry, but in a way that both the actual bigots and people realising this can laugh together on completely different layers of the humour in his films.

    For example in Borat there are many scenes where it’s all about how much the “Kazakhs” hate Jews, but actually when Borat is supposedly talking in Kazakh to Azamat, he is speaking Hebrew. See

    1.  Likewise, apparently* he also speaks in Hebrew as The Dictator in this film.

      (Disclaimer: I, too, have not seen the film. But I did listen to SBC’s rare “not in character” interview with Howard Stern this week.)

  9. I’m impressed he could make those sure-fire conclusions from just watching a teaser trailer and the stunt at the Oscars. Those are mad skillz. A lesser man would have had to watched the movie in it’s entirety, or at least research the plot, before condemning it.

    But then again, his main argument seems to be that you shouldn’t ever be allowed to make a cultural comment on anything unless you have very personal experience to draw from. So f*ck you Glenn Close for portraying a transgender on film when you’ve never actually had a penis! You’re almost as evil as that racist Brit-basher Meryl Streep!

    1. Well Dean is from New Jersey so his opinion must be incredibly relevant some how.   Really though I think CNN is on to something here.  Why even bother watching movie trailers anymore, until their reviewed.  I would hate to watch a two and half minute long trailer only to realize the trailer was a total flop.   that’s two and half minutes I could have spent on another channel watching a pringles commercial.

  10. The closest thing I’ve seen in the trailer that was mocking to some kind of Arab culture, as opposed to mocking crazy-ass dictators, was his characters dismissal of the value of female human life.

    And while I know a lot of Arab-Americans and Arabs here to study who don’t openly express such beliefs I see nothing but affirmation that, while flawed as any generalization is bound to be, the predominant belief in Arabic and North African Islamic nations is “women are worthless”.  I’ll get sympathy pains for them when stoning rape victims or making female children marry their rapists isn’t legal.

    Not all white folks of Southern U.S. birth are racist homophobes, either, but enough of them are and it is institutionalized enough that mocking such institutions should not only be O.K. it should be encouraged. Same with the institutions in Arabic nations that have women treated as property or at best as livestock. 

  11. Except I really don’t think the point is lost on most people.

    I watched 10 mins of Bruno and found it offensive. Sure, SBC probably takes the piss out of homophobes in it, but he also stereotypes queers and has a laugh at our expense. It seems like he just applies a ‘blackface’ to himself, pretending to be a member of some marginalised community, and throws in a bit of satire so it’s not super obvious he’s making racist/queerphobic jokes.

    Also, someone from the Arab community is calling this racist. Maybe at this point white people should actually think about that, rather than automatically rushing to SBC’s defense. Read some critical race theory blogs. If the oppressed are calling it opression, it’s probably opression. Sorry if that ruins the movie for you.

    And if the trailer has some racist undertones in it, has SBC dressed up in blackface, then sorry, there’s gonna be racism in this movie. You don’t need to watch the movie for that.

    1.  Bruno, as I saw it, was more about people’s reactions to over the top gay people, exposing their own prejudices. I thought it was telling that the people who were the most open, honest and accepting were the hunting and fishing guys from the south who just wanted to live and let live (well, people that is, the fish and game they wanted to kill and eat).

    2. I’m sorry if you saw it that way but considering (and you said it yourself) you watched only 10 mins of Bruno, I’d say you’re pretty unqualified to comment on the movie or his character in it. Just as this joker rails against something he hasn’t seen.

      The reason Baron Cohen relies on exaggerated stereotypes is because those are what bigots use to identify their predetermined enemy. You cannot trap a bigot if you cannot identify them and they cannot identify ‘you’ as their enemy if you are not behaving as their narrow stereotype dictates you should. The fact that people in his movies fall for such extreme caricatures is what enhances the ridicule of their bigoted position. It reinforces that such people are completely out of touch with reality if they can so easily believe such a caricature.

      The claims in your last paragraph are unsubstantiated. I watched the trailer… I don’t believe he is “dressed up in blackface” in any of the scenes and I can’t identify the racist undertones you claim are there. The only one that sticks out is the one about checking the Empire State building “before you or one of your cousins takes it down” – a line which is delivered by a white politician character and is clearly more of a commentary on the mentality of American politicians than anything else.

  12. I haven’t seen the movie but I was thinking the Dictator-ness is the main element here.  He’s not playing an average Arab person.
    He’s playing a megalomaniac sociopath Dictator who’s a parody/stereotype of Dictators we can certainly recognize as existing/existed in parts of the world.

    I’m not an Arab so, I do say all of this stuff loosely.  I can’t claim to be able to view the character in the same light as people of Arab heritage.

    1. To further your point, he is playing a parody of the stereotype of dictators, that has been built up in America media. Usually to undermine and justify invading such dictators regime, as though they have to be a crazy buffoon, on top of a sociopathic tyrant, to deserve Team America bombing his country back to “freedom.”

  13. SBC’s character explicitly states that he is NOT an Arab in the trailer, and John C. Reilly’s security guard character says “you’re all Arabs to me.”

  14. The concern in the article is not so much the movie but that Hollywood continues to cast non-Arabs to play them and then mocks Arabs – as well as with Indians as happened last week with Ashton Kutcher in Brownface playing an Indian guy as a buffoon for Pop Chips commericial. The point being if Hollywood is going to make $ from mocking Arabs and Indians and their culture, at least add some real Arabs and Indians to the movie in hope it adds some nuance and not just be cliche stereotypical jokes

    1. So are the MetroPCS commercials with two actual South Asians acting like buffoonish caricatures okay? (I find them in poor taste myself.) Is it always offensive if a comedic character has a “funny accent?”

      1. It’s the least creative, clever or imaginative thing that you could possibly try to pass off as comedy.

        1. Oh, I agree. But the differentiation between using brownface and hiring actual Asians for mockery is, I think, not the salient point. You can always find someone desperate enough to perform stereotypical antics for laughs; just because they are actually of the ethnicity they are performing doesn’t make it okay. (There were black men who wore blackface to perform in minstrel shows.) Conversely, a portrayal of a different ethnicity (or gender or sexual orientation etc.) is not necessarily bad. It depends on how it’s approached. No one gave Eric McCormack any shit for not actually being gay in “Will & Grace,” but Mickey Rooney’s part in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” is rightfully reviled.

          Edit: Another example is Apu from the Simpsons, who started off as a funny-talking 7-11 clerk and gradually developed into a fully-formed character with an interior life and real personality. Still talks funny, but he’s not a cheap caricature any more.

  15. Kutchner makes a video using some stereotypes and thats bad.
    Cohen makes a series of movies using stereotypes and thats ok.
    Both thought they were funny… whats the difference?

    While some people have argued its high satire, your forgetting the lowest common denominator factor.  People who won’t figure out the joke and use this to further their own agenda.  18 month old on the no fly list yanked off a plane, it might be a bad time to play with “arab” stereotypes as there appears to be a wide swath of people who think they are all terrorists or about to be terrorists.

    While we hope everyone is as smart as us and can see its just parody… There are STILL people passing around the AbortionPlex story link on FB screaming about how Obama has created death camps etc etc etc…

    It is one thing to challenge peoples perceptions, it is another to rake in cash while throwing them to the wolves.

    1. The difference is that one was advertising. You cannot compare advertising (explicitly commercial in function) to a film (explicitly a form of artistic expression that has been commercialised).

      Sorry but I refuse to live in a vanilla world because some idiots don’t get it and are mistaking ridicule for support. That makes it even funnier and makes the crash down to reality even better. Who exactly is being thrown to the wolves here? Dictators?

  16. I find this article to be completely fatuous.

    “For example, at a news conference in New York City this week promoting his film, Cohen exclaimed: “Welcome devils of the Zionist media and death to the West.””

    Well, news tip for Mr. Obeidallah: A lot of Arab leaders did, at one point (and not in the long distant past either) speak like that with words to that effect. Quite literally. Some of the Mullahs still, in fact, do. Kaddafi, upon whom everyone assumes automatically that “The Dictator” is partly based, would regularly speak words to that effect in the world press. Nothing new there.

    “Here is my simple request to the entertainment industry: If you are going to mock and ridicule us for profit, can you at least cast Arabs and Indians to play us?”

    Did he ask the same when “Borat” came out about Kazakhs? I haven’t looked, but I’m fairly sure he wasn’t supporting the Kazakh government position. Neither, come to think of it, did most people in the West.

    “And let’s be honest, these types of buffoonish “brownface” stereotypes would not be permitted if it were any other minority group.”

    Again, it was with Borat and it was with Bruno. Few people made something big of it.

    “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?”

    This happens in the Muslim and Arab world quite a bit. I.E. “Valley of the Wolves” and also “Rub Mashkal”. These were not comedies. They were quite serious in portraying anti-semitic myths and were hugely popular in the Muslim world. And these are only two examples.

    “Arabs and South Asians have long been ghettoized in Hollywood, playing almost exclusively cab drivers, deli workers, terrorists and the occasional “good” guy who works with law enforcement, and who is usually killed later in the movie by a bad “brown” guy.”

    As far as I can tell, SBC makes fun of that stereotyping as well.

    I often times find SBC to be hilarious but sometimes over the top. I would not, however, say that he’s a racist or a homophobe. We all know that his movies expose racism, anti-semitism, and homophobia in many venues and mocks them for it. That’s the only “serious” thing which SBC does.

  17. While we are at it, I’ll register my great displeasure at how the Red Skull showcases the worst stereotypes about Germans.

    1. Wouldn’t a crazy German dictator be a more natural Hollywood Zionist fantasy?

  18. The character isn’t meant to be a caricature of Arabs, nor dictators per se. It is a caricature of the culturally common perception of previously mentioned stereotypes.

    He is playing on your preconceptions and how dictators have been portrayed by many media sources.

    Problem is with satire, you are always going to have people who read it without the intentioned commentary, and that is always the danger of art; glamourising or insulting the subject material.

    Think about how dictators have been portrayed in US media, watch the film and in the mean time shut up.

  19. (in Re to an above post) I’ve seen enough of Bruno to know what kind of movie it is. And I’ve seen Borat, which is basically the same movie but he takes on the stereotypes of another marginalised group, right? Also, Bruno is about stereotypes my community is faced with, so actually I’d say I’m pretty qualified to have an opinion.

    Lots of people are saying things to the effect of SBC exposes or confronts homophobia. Sure, people might reveal their bigotry, but SBC does nothing to actually challenge it. The only thing he does is reinforce the childish school-yard sterotypes of queers. If he was going to confront homophobia he’d be challenging the sterotypes, rather than reinforcing them to bigots, whilst, essentially, making money off of the homophobia and heteronormativity that us queers face everyday.

    People can go watch these movies and feel superior to the bigots in SBC’s movies, but that does not challenge anyone’s prejudices, and has bugger all positive effect for the marginalised community in reality.

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