In The Hollywood Reporter's Comedy Actors Roundtable from 2020, Sacha Baron Cohen shares a tale from one of his pieces for the provocative TV show Who is America?. "A security advisor gave me a clipboard, and told me I've made this bulletproof clipboard in case someone draws a gun and tries to shoot at you," he says, describing a volatile town protest he had helped rile in an American neighbourhood in opposition to the construction of a mosque.
Despite its morbid implications, Cohen's narration is so casually self-deprecatory it leaves his fellow panelists, which includes the likes of Jim Carrey, Don Cheadle, and Harry Winkler, stunned. Most panelists echo their disbelief at what Cohen manages to pull off.
Nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his role in The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Cohen represents Hollywood's dissenting nerve in the shadow of the Donald Trump regime.
Moreover, he represents its throbbing outer limits, the ones that only Cohen seemed to possess, making him, perhaps the definitive actor of the chaotic Trump years.
Cohen started out as the fictional character Ali G, a satirical imitation of a suburban British man obsessed with Jamaican culture. His breakthrough came with the seminal film Borat (2006) where Cohen played an anti-sematic journalist from Kazakhstan in awe of the American way of life. Besides being audaciously provocative and funny, the film is also a subversive comment on the branding of the US as the liberal outpost for the third world. More than his politics, however, Cohen came to be known for his brass-necked audacity to volunteer for embarrassing set pieces.
It did not always go according to plan. Bruno (2009), Cohen's bafflingly offensive film remained an eye sore before The Dictator (2012) redeemed the actor to an extent, in an age when dictators seemed laughably alien ideas to the West. Through the film, its on-the-nose condescension of minds gullible enough to entertain the thought of kingship, Cohen pointed to more serious work to come. No one would have thought it would have to be pulled off in the US rather than a crumbling middle-eastern settlement or an Asian backyard.
Hollywood, to its credit, did raise its voice against Trump's farcical reign. From late night hosts landing punches night after night to Alec Baldwin's hilarious imitation of the president on Saturday Night Live! to Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep's comprehensive rejection of Trump, artists stood up. Persecuted during the Republican's reign, the industry's black artists like John Bodega and Samuel L Jackson were at the forefront of most protests against the former president's draconian laws attacking diversity in the states. None, however, thought of creating art out of it the way Cohen managed to.
Moreover, none thought of bringing a stinging journalistic ethic along with their criticism to better channel the anger that was consuming artists everywhere. In the roundtable interview, Cohen says "I just had to find a way of channelling all this anger into these characters". These characters, as it turned out was a masterfully hilarious takedown of the US' puzzling yet torn political core and the ludicrous anxieties it is now willing to indulge.
For Showtime's Who is America? Cohen disguised himself as six different characters to interview popular political figures, using humour to uncover their blatantly bigoted view of the US. At times absurd and at times disturbing, Who is America? is a TV experiment like no other, that straddles politics and art in equal measure.
Cohen's second Borat film, however, must be one of the definitive performances of the Trump years. Shot largely during the pandemic, Cohen reprises his role as the Kazakh journalist, but this time, actually does some journalism, infiltrating white supremacist groups and exposing their beguiling lack of sensitivity towards science or reason. It is a ludicrously provocative film pillared upon unimaginable risks that mirror the paranoia of Trump's reign. Not to mention one that was filmed with the now-clear picture of what next step or hurdle would look like. Despite all of that, Cohen manages to capture an image of the US that echoes the turmoil it has recently seen. All the while managing to draw both humour and depth out of a painting, that was in essence, trying to capture a sinking ship. It is some feat.
Cohen has been nominated for his role as Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7. It is the more illustrious part, at least one that seems cinematically polished. Yet is far less risky and enlightening compared to real life post-mortems that Cohen has performed on the state of the American people and their polity. Sorkin's film is cathartic, and therefore easier to both view and appreciate. Who is America? and Borat, on the other hand, are grim surveys executed with the edge of a present tense that chokes and challenges your sense of comfort with ideas that a Sorkin's film easily offers. While the latter may be a snapshot of the wondrous destination we want to get to the former, Cohen's risible characters reflect on the immensity of the hurdles our realities are now crowded with. Through both, Cohen has been the definitive, perhaps most important acting voice through Trump's chaotic reign. If not the Oscar, he deserves every plaudit he has coming his way.
Oscars 2021 will air in India on 26 April.