Posted by on May 11, 2012 in Blog

There seems to be a little controversy over Sasha Baron Cohen’s new film “The Dictator,” due for theatrical release next week. If you haven’t seen the trailer, you should probably start with that (scroll to the bottom).

Arab American comedian Dean Obeidallah wrote a harsh indictment of the movie, calling it “brownface” and rhetorically asked:

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?

Blogger Zaid Jilani disagreed (indeed, got into a heated discussion) with Dean, insisting that the movie was stereotyping Arab dictators, not Arabs in general, which he thought was perfectly legitimate. He went on to say that if our community “can’t let something that's hilarious be hilarious we're going to look uptight and unreasonable.” Emily Manna responded to Zaid by saying: “SBC's work doesn't only mock Arab dictators; in the US it perpetuates general Arab stereotypes.”

I can kind of see both points. On the one hand, Obeidallah and Manna are absolutely correct: the movie (and Sasha Baron Cohen’s earlier work, for that matter) does contain crude stereotypes, and it is also true that there is a double standard at work which would have excluded other (but not all) non-Arab stereotypes from being the topic of humor in a major Hollywood movie. On the other hand, subtle racism and sexism are rampant in pop culture, and comedy is an area where the boundaries of appropriateness tend to be more flexible. For those reasons, I can’t get too worked up over the slightly offensive humor in this film. I think the racism and double standards are definitely worth noting, but the movie isn’t worth waging a campaign against, and I frankly wouldn’t hold it against anyone who wanted to ignore the inappropriate parts and just watch it to enjoy the humor. What do you think?

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