By Jack Holloway
Sacha Baron Cohen is making a lot of news with his new Showtime special Who is America?
The concept for the show will be familiar to those who know Baron Cohen’s work: he disguises himself as whacky characters and gets people to do crazy things under misleading pretenses.
Among the characters this time is Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a caricature of a far-left activist who goes to different places trying to “heal the divide” between liberals and conservatives.
Nira sets up a town hall meeting in Kingman, AZ, where he tells the residents that a huge mosque will be built in their city, and gauges their interest in the project. They respond how we would expect, even if we maintained hopes to the contrary. We see explicit Islamophobia, as someone says, “When I think of a mosque, I think of terrorism,” and another says, ridiculously, “I am racist toward Muslims.”—It gets worse, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
There’s also Rick Sherman, a British ex-convict who uses his time in prison as inspiration for recreating himself in modern society.
Rick has become proficient in cooking, and wants to test his prison-themed menu on a food critic, in an attempt to become a Michelin star chef. The food critic is Bill Jilla, who, among other disgusting menu items, tries Rick’s cooked meat, which Rick tells him comes from human flesh that was voluntarily donated by a man from China before he died. Jilla praises the dish, saying it melts in his mouth, and then, upon instruction, looks into the camera and thanks the family of the man who donated his flesh.
The most famous of Baron Cohen’s characters is Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terrorism military expert, who trains people how to protect themselves from and fight aggressives.
In offering tips for defending himself from terrorists, Erran managed to get Georgia state representative Jason Spencer to do a racist impression of a Chinese person, take an upskirt photo, shout the N-word, and pull down his pants and underwear and try to use his buttocks to practice warding off a presumably homophobic terrorist (Spencer has since resigned from the House of Representatives in disgrace).
Erran also got a Trump supporter, named Glenn, to dress up as a “radical lesbian,” attend a women’s march, place a [fake] tracking device on a marcher, and then detonate an explosive device equipped to the tracker that was supposed to give the marcher a fatal heart attack. “I’ve never participated in someone’s death before,” Glenn said, “I feel a little queasy.”
That’s right. Sacha Baron Cohen successfully convinced a Trump supporter to become a terrorist.
In Who is America?, Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t just play whacky characters—he plays Satan, “The Accuser.” He constructs tests in order to tease out the darkness in people that they generally try to wrap in light.
In the Old Testament, hasatan (“the Satan,” or, “the Accuser”) is a member of God’s celestial court who specializes in being suspicious. His job is to doubt the surface with which he is presented. He is the designated “devil’s advocate,” as we say.
He does not believe that people are generally good, but rather assumes that they aren’t, and that if they appear to be, there must be something behind it. Everyone always has an angle, and he wants to sniff it out. Everything good is always too good to be true. He wants the truth—the dirty, gritty, troubling truth.
Such is the character of Satan. Over time, his relentless antagonism toward goodness contributed to his coming to personify evil itself. Originally, however, his purpose was to test a person’s integrity.
Job is said by God to be “a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8), but Satan wonders, “Does Job revere God for nothing?” (v.9). He suspects that Job is only righteous because he is blessed. “But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has,” Satan says, “and he will curse you to your face” (v.11). He wants to expose Job as a fraud. He wants to reveal the true character of Job. Job, he thinks, has no integrity, and he wants to prove it.
In Who is America?, Sacha Baron Cohen is like this. He sets up scenarios in which he can cut through the façade and see the real character of his guests. He tries to find out who has integrity and who doesn’t.
Proverbs 10:6 says, “He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out.” And 11:3 says, “The integrity of the upright will guide them, but the crookedness of the treacherous will destroy them.”
Those who have integrity need not be afraid of the accuser. Their integrity is all the equipment they need for knowing what to do and say when he comes. But the wicked will be exposed by him. He will entrap them. He will find them out. And they will fall.
In Who is America?, Sacha Baron Cohen plays this role brilliantly.