Sacha Baron Cohen's crude Kazakh journalist may have originated in a dissertation on the 'Black-Jewish alliance' in 1960s America.
Borat, the unspeakably uncouth Kazakh TV presenter dreamed up by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, is raising a stink – along with box office revenues – in cinemas. An anti-Semite and misogynist, seriously unversed in the politically correct, Borat journeys around the "U, S and A" and shines a spotlight on America's own underlying tensions and prejudices. Wandering in a dirty, Soviet-era suit – with only a live chicken in his suitcase, an overweight producer, and dreams of "Pamela Andersons" to keep him company – Borat travels to the heart of America in "Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." He finds that not everything is "niiice!"
But this isn't the first time Mr. Baron Cohen has visited the US for "cultural learnings" and wrestled with issues of race and identity. (Though let's hope it is the last time he wrestles with his naked producer.)
In 1992, when he was a history student at Cambridge University, he did it for real. He visited Atlanta and interviewed Jewish and black activists for his undergraduate dissertation on the "Black-Jewish alliance" in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Think of it as a first take: "Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit the Dissertation."
What did Baron Cohen see in that first work trip to the US? Is there an early whiff of a "Baron Cohen philosophy" in his dissertation? And might Borat and Baron Cohen's other characters – Ali G, the white guy who walks and talks black, and Bruno, the camp Austrian TV presenter who gets fashionistas to put their Jimmy Choo-ed feet in their mouths – have been born in the cloistered halls of Cambridge?
We go to Cambridge in the U and K to find out. You read.
Seeley Library at Cambridge University is a million mental leaps away from Borat's fictional village, where owning a clock radio is the height of sophistication and women win trophies for prostitution. This august repository of knowledge is set in a modernist, red-brick building with a pyramid-shaped glimmering glass roof. Wawaweewa!
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