He refused for many years to give interviews as himself. He would occasionally speak as his characters. He tended to let critiques pass without rebuttal, as when journalists wondered if Ali G was in the tradition of Al Jolson and when Abe Foxman, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League, criticized Borat, fearing the character could incite anti-Semitism because some people might miss the irony.
After the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., an appalled Mr. Baron Cohen reached out to Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the A.D.L., who persuaded the star to give the keynote at last year’s A.D.L. summit, Never Is Now.
“I was just so impressed by his intelligence,’’ Mr. Greenblatt said. “These issues are at the heart of his motive for his unique style of art. More than anyone in public life today, he exposes bias — whether it’s anti-Semitism, homophobia or rank racism — for what it is, shameful and wrenching and ignorant.” (In fact, Mr. Baron Cohen used Hebrew and some Polish as a stand-in for the Kazakh language in Borat.)
The actor started his speech by saying that, to be clear, “when I say ‘racism, hate and bigotry,’ I’m not referring to the names of Stephen Miller’s Labradoodles.” Later he noted that while his stunts could be “juvenile” and “puerile,” at least some are aimed at getting people to reveal what they actually believe, as “when Borat was able to get an entire bar in Arizona to sing ‘Throw the Jew down the well,’ it did reveal people’s indifference to anti-Semitism.”
Scorching the lords of the cloud, he said that Facebook would run and micro-target any “political” ad anyone wants, even if it’s a lie. “If Facebook were around in the 1930s,’’ he said, “it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem.’”
The speech catalyzed the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign, with a coalition of civil rights groups and Mr. Baron Cohen wrangling celebrities. Doing the speech was “completely out of my comfort zone,” he said, because “I’ve always been reluctant to be a celebrity and I’ve always been wary of using my fame to push any political views, really.”