Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat movies are popular with fans of Cohen’s cringe-worthy satire. They have also been popular targets for lawsuits. Baron Cohen and the producers of the two Borat films, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and Borat Subsequent Movie Film, have been sued at least seven times. In the movies, Baron Cohen plays Borat, a clueless and crude journalist from Kazakhstan. Baron Cohen lures unsuspecting subjects into embarrassing situations, as his Borat character pretends to be on a quest to learn about American culture. Several people, unhappy with their unflattering portrayals in the movies, have filed suit, claiming to have been tricked into unwittingly participating in the movies.
To date, the lawsuits have achieved only limited success. While Baron Cohen clearly does not warn his subjects that his intent is to embarrass them in a film that will be widely viewed in the United States, Baron Cohen does have his subjects sign a release before filming. Presumably, Baron Cohen allows his participants to have the impression that he is filming a documentary that will be shown in Kazakhstan, while the release allows Baron Cohen and his studios broad rights to use the footage.
Following the release of the first film in 2006, Baron Cohen and 20th Century Fox were sued by an Alabama etiquette coach, Kathie Martin, who accused Baron Cohen of “tricking her into being a part of a childish prank.” Martin, perhaps one of the more sympathetic plaintiffs in the lawsuits filed against Baron Cohen, engaged in a futile attempt to teach Borat Southern manners, only to bring Borat to a dinner party where he defecated into a plastic bag . Citing the language in the release signed by Martin, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit, although one of the justices expressed sympathy for the fact that Martin had been exposed to “boorish and offensive” behavior.
Baron Cohen and 20th Century Fox were also sued following the first film by two University of South Carolina fraternity brothers after the movie showed the fraternity brothers making sexist and racist comments. Like Martin, the fraternity brothers claimed that they had been tricked into participating in the movie, contending they had been told that the film would not be shown in the United States. They also claimed that Baron Cohen took advantage of their intoxication. Again, this suit was dismissed based on the release language.
Some scenes in the first Borat movie were filmed in the village of Glod, Romania. For their appearance as extras in the film, villagers received $70 to $100 each, although some people received as little as three lei (the equivalent of $1.28 at the time). After learning of the success of the movie, villagers filed suit, seeking $83 million in damages. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2006 and again in 2008.
One lawsuit that achieved some success was filed by a Macedonian singer, Esma RedZepova, who alleged that one of her songs had been used in the movie without her permission. She sued for $800,000 but was awarded approximately $26,000.
The most poignant story about litigation arising out of the Borat movies involves a lawsuit filed by the daughter of a Holocaust survivor over her mother’s appearance in the 2020 sequel. In the movie, Borat interviews Holocaust survivor, Judith Dim Evans, and espouses anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying views. Rather than reacting with justifiable anger, Evans tries to explain, with patience and kindness, why Borat’s views are wrong. It is one of the few instances in the Borat films where a participant in the film is portrayed favorably. Unfortunately, Evans passed away before the movie was released. Concerned that her mother was made to be the butt of one of Baron Cohen’s jokes, Evans’ daughter filed suit prior to the release of the film, contending that Baron Cohen and Amazon had misappropriated her mother’s likeness. In the suit, Evans’ daughter sought an injunction, requiring Amazon to remove Evans from the film. Ultimately, Baron Cohen, who has made combating Holocaust denial a personal cause, dedicated the movie to Evans. Baron Cohen also helped create a website in Evans’ honor and Amazon is developing bonus content for the film that will tell Evans’ Holocaust story. The lawsuit was dismissed.