Skip to main content

Sacha Cohen's movie a minstrel show

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
May 11, 2012 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sacha Cohen arrives in London for the UK premiere of
Sacha Cohen arrives in London for the UK premiere of "The Dictator." Obeidallah says Cohen uses the worst Arab stereotypes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah: Sacha Cohen plays an Arab dictator showing worst stereotypes of Arabs
  • He says it's the same as whites in blackface performing vicious stereotypes of blacks
  • Arab culture is not off-limits for comedy, he says, it's just that these jokes aren't based in truth
  • Obeidallah: If real Arabs had some input, jokes could rise above the superficial and clichéd

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog "The Dean's Report" and co-director of the upcoming documentary, "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie, "The Dictator," is a modern-day minstrel show judging from the trailer and Cohen's comments promoting the film while dressed as the film's star, "Gen. Shabazz Aladeen," the leader of a fictitious Arab country.

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.

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." He then joked about liking TV shows that showed Arab terrorists killing Americans and admiring fashion designer John Galliano for hating the Jews.

To me, this is essentially the same as white performers in blackface portraying black people in buffoonish negative stereotypes for the enjoyment of white America.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah
Anger over "The Dictator"
Is the world ready for 'The Dictator'?
'The Dictator' backs 'Mitchell' Romney

But I am not advocating a ban on offensive comments or the telling of culturally insensitive jokes. I certainly am not calling for more PC comedy. I'm not calling for a boycott of anyone nor asking for one more insincere "I'm sorry to all those who were offended by me" from a celebrity.

I'm in no way arguing that Arab culture is off-limits or cannot be mocked. I'm a comedian of Arab heritage and have performed comedy shows not only for Arab-American groups across the United States, but also in the Middle East, from Egypt to Qatar to Saudi Arabia. I find the biggest laughs are elicited when performers hold up a comic mirror to Arab culture.

But for some reason, the entertainment industry appears to truly enjoy ridiculing "brown" people, Arabs and Indians, and has no qualms about casting people not of our heritage to portray us. Indeed, just last week Popchips snack company found itself embroiled in a controversy because an ad showed Ashton Kutcher playing an Indian character in brownface, similar to what Cohen is doing in "The Dictator."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook/CNNOpinion

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? And while we're at it, why not include us in the creative process as co-writers and directors?

If you look at the names of the writers, co-stars and director of "The Dictator," none is of Arab heritage. Ben Kingsley, who is of Indian heritage, co-stars, but if you don't know the difference between Arabs and Indians, go to Google.

And let's be honest, these types of buffoonish "brownface" stereotypes would not be permitted if it were any other minority group.  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?

I understand that the entertainment industry is about making money, not correcting negative stereotypes -- even those they helped perpetuate. But why not cast a person who is actually Arab as the sidekick to the star who is pretending to be Arab?

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.

But here's the thing Hollywood: Adding people of our heritage to the movie is actually good business. It would help the film rise above the superficial and cliched material we have seen for years when it comes to Arabs and Indians on the screen. For example, the jokes in "The Dictator" trailer sound like a less clever version of the material you would hear from comedian Jeff Dunham's ventriloquist dummy "Achmed the Dead Terrorist." 

Hollywood learned this very lesson years ago when it made mafia movies with no Italian-Americans involved in the creative process or as stars. Those films failed because they lacked any true understanding of Italian culture, which would have enhanced the film. That changed when Paramount Studios hired Francis Ford Coppola, then a little-known director, to helm "The Godfather." In turn, Coppola hired talented but unknown Italian-American actors such as Al Pacino and John Cazale ("Fredo Corleone") to be co-stars. The rest is cinematic history.

In time, there will likely be an Arab and Indian-American Denzel Washington and Spike Lee. And that will come from a combination of the artists in those communities creating their own projects -- which is increasingly happening -- but also being cast in the bigger budget Hollywood movies. The big studio movies have the greatest reach and are the ones which create stars who then have the ability to get movies made that would present their culture in a more nuanced and entertaining manner.

"The Dictator" may turn out to be a blockbuster hit or a big budget miss. But I can assure you that the film would have been better if it included some input from the very community being ridiculed by the film.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT