Socialist Worker

Who's behind da reel Ali G?

Issue No. 1680

In my view

Who's behind da reel Ali G?

By Pat Stack

ANYBODY WHO has watched Channel 4's 11 o'Clock Show will know that its only redeeming feature is the slot given over once a week to Ali G. The show itself is a nasty piece of "tongue in cheek, postmodern humour". A large percentage of the jokes are about gays. Apparently "ironic", it all ends up leaving a nasty taste in the mouth. Ali G stands out precisely because he is very funny.

This point was agreed upon recently by a number of black comedians. At the same time they questioned whether the character wasn't in some way pandering to racism. The character Ali G is the invention of a middle class Jewish comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen. Posing as the voice of "yoof", he has got to interview a variety of well known figures. In so doing he has bemused, and been patronised by, everyone from Rhodes Boyson to a former head of the CIA. Not wanting to seem stuffy or out of touch, they have found themselves answering the most bewilderingly ignorant questions.

A leading British military figure takes seriously the question, "When it looked like Germany were going to win the Second World War, were you tempted to change sides?" Wonderfully, a member of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, being interviewed in Belfast, was asked whether he was Irish. When he replied, "No, I'm British," Ali G shot back with, "Is you on holiday here, then?"

Funnily enough, the figure who emerged best from these interviews was Tony Benn. He fell for the joke but he refused to play the game. He denounced Ali G's attitude to women, and attacked his ignorance and prejudice. It is precisely this ignorance and prejudice that has led to the controversy. In his interviews Ali G is repeatedly misogynistic and homophobic.

So apart from the rich and powerful, just who is Sacha Baron Cohen sending up? His character is a young man from Staines who is either a young black man, a young Asian, or a young white "wannabe" imitating black fashion, patois, and holding the prejudices allegedly favoured by young streetwise black kids. It is this confusion that has led to the black comedians questioning the character's motives.

Cohen himself is not a racist. The Mirror showed him on an anti-racist demo. His university dissertation was on the role of Jews in the black civil rights movements in the US. Nevertheless there are problems. Some of his defenders have used the controversy to attack political correctness, and even to argue for the rehabilitation of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson. My gut feeling is that few racists will enjoy a show where a supposedly young black man is consistently and successfully taking the piss out of the white establishment.

Attempts to use him as a pathway back to Manning seem to me unlikely to succeed. One poll of young blacks showed that 80 percent liked the character, not the sort of rating Manning's crude racism would gain. As to the future of the character, it is difficult to see where Cohen can go with Ali G. People have likened him to Mrs Merton. But her format works because the interviewees are in on the joke. With Ali G it can only work because they are not.

The better known he gets, the more difficult it is to carry on the present format. Without the authority targets the character could merely become a middle class white sending up young blacks whilst resorting to puerile 11 o'Clock Show humour. If that were to happen, then Ali G might just become what some of his critics are accusing him of, a dubious black stereotype.


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Thu 20 Jan 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1680
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