What ‘The Brothers Grimsby’s’ Donald Trump AIDS Joke Says About Current Perceptions of HIV


Spoiler alert: the headline is a bit of a spoiler. If you’re already upset because you were really excited about the thought-provoking surprises The Brothers Grimsby holds, perhaps this piece isn’t right for you.

As I was taking notes during a press screening of Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Brothers Grimsby, I had a sudden realization that if the loose pages I was scribbling on somehow blew away into the infinite stampede of New York’s Union Square, someone might pick them up and think they’d found the key to the most batshit, polymorphously perverse conspiracy in existence. My fragmentary reminders of pivotal scenes made me feel like I was holding something immensely incriminating (though all taken directly from the film): “Finger through philanthropic poster’s penis.” “Daniel Radcliffe HIV failed assassination.” “Poop versus penis, funny.” “Inside elephant’s vagina, ‘elephant bukake party.'” “They give Donald Trump HIV via Daniel Radcliffe.” “Bioterrorism.” “Elephant semen secret.” “Butt firework.” “Firework butt.”

As these notes suggest, Baron Cohen’s egregiously uneven, sporadically funny, and ceaselessly repulsive The Brothers Grimsby features a fake cameo by a CGI Donald Trump, which reportedly made early audiences in England cheer. Or rather, the ill fate of that fake cameo — the conclusion to a long, bodily fluid-based formula — made audiences in England cheer. At my screening in New York, Trump’s plight likewise made the audience erupt in an expression of effortless victory. We won, just by sitting here and watching a movie where Sacha Baron Cohen teabags his brother!

Said victory is, of course, the perceived destruction of Donald Trump. (Notably, Baron Cohen has a long history of tensions with and criticisms of Trump.) And the means of said victory is… complicated. First, Daniel Radcliffe (played by a lookalike) contracts HIV when the blood of an infected half-Israeli, half-Palestinian child in a wheelchair catapults into his mouth, the result of a chain of events too complicated and ridiculous to describe in full. At the end of the film, that joke returns: Trump sits watching the World Cup, behind Radcliffe. A stray bullet penetrates Radcliffe — his blood shoots into Trump’s mouth. There’s a close-up rendering of Trump’s red blood cells. I think it was at this moment, when we see Trump’s cellular breakdown suddenly plagued, that the cheering began. Cut to a reporter saying something along the lines of, “Donald Trump has AIDS.”

Obviously, there’s something troubling about the reporter’s, and the cheering audience’s, excitement: Trump, who could surely afford the best medical care money can buy, would be burdened by the stigma and inconveniences of HIV. But he would also most likely continue to live his long, stupid life without much worry of it developing into AIDS. The joke is aware of, and thrives on, the datedness of cultural perceptions that equate contracting HIV with imminent death.

But, like so much of Baron Cohen’s work, the joke also requires the audience’s complicity in the perpetuation of the stigma. Beyond whether it’s offensive or tasteless — a somewhat useless question to apply to Baron Cohen’s comedy — the joke suggests the transitional place Western society is in regarding perceptions of HIV. The film, which targets wealth disparities in England and (via Trump) the US, is predominantly an appeal to the West, and so notions of HIV among populations where it’s more of a threat don’t seem to play into its exploitation of these perceptions. The joke may merely be intended as an explosive moment of anti-Trump appeal in a movie that thinly attempts social commentary, but it’s also clearly the product of paradox about HIV in the 2010s Western imaginary.

We’ve seen a few relatively recent films that slay still-alive (or dead, but by different means) faces of authoritarianism (or prospective authoritarianism): Inglorious Basterds with Hitler, Team America with Kim Jong-il, The Interview with Kim Jong-un, Zoolander with Justin Bieber. These moments clearly make manifest widespread cultural revenge fantasies, eliciting immediate excitement. The weapon that brings about audience fervor via the perceived destruction of a frightful figurehead in The Brothers Grimsby is a little different, though: it’s HIV. Which, it should be obvious, isn’t the same thing as death. It’s not even the same thing as a death sentence.

But the joke requires a residual, abstract notion that is in order for it to function as an explosive blow to the neo-fascist idol. I doubt people would cheer if the thought process were as complex as: “Now Trump will have to undergo a series of tests, but will probably live life mostly as he previously had, but also perhaps advocate for destigmatizing HIV in order to continue running for president, and have to explain publicly the fact that he has access to certain medications that it’s harder for other people to obtain within America’s grotesque hierarchizing of health based on wealth.”

“The fact that HIV is used in this context, for shock value, is testimony to that fact that HIV is still seen as a punchline,” said a spokesperson for the National AIDS Trust, before the film came out, and before it was known that the target would be Trump (initially, it was thought to be Queen Elizabeth). It turns out the punchline isn’t HIV, but rather Donald Trump, but the vessel for the punchline is, indeed, a false perception of HIV. The strange thing is, I wonder if people likewise would have cheered at the same joke if HIV were still the same threat it was to the Western world as it was in the 1990s, if courses of PrEP and PEP weren’t both increasingly known measures one could take in order to prevent contracting the virus. (Again, Trump could ostensibly start PEP immediately after swallowing the infected blood.)

In order to land as semi-innocuous — compared to some of Cohen’s other offensive proclamations — among the liberal audiences who’d cheer when Trump gets HIV, the scenario needs to exist in a society where HIV is destigmatized enough for the offense not to overwhelm the joke. Yet it simultaneously needs to exist historically, in the backs of people’s minds, as “THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU, EVER.” This is especially apparent in the film’s decision to infect Trump with HIV when it has another disease at its fingertips: the plot of The Brothers Grimsby concerns a bioterrorist effort using a completely different, uncontainable illness. Yet to prove a point, the film decided to use the disease with a stigmatized history rather than the fictional — and untreatable disease.

Only furthering notions that HIV exists in this strange space between fear and acceptance — where it’s destigmatized enough to be the vehicle for a liberal joke while also still eliciting fear — Sony was so worried about Trump’s litigious tendencies that it added a disclaimer about Trump (and Radcliffe) not having HIV to the beginning of the credits, dulling the joke’s attempted political impact while underlining the stigma it plays on.

With consistent news of a potential cure for AIDS emerging every few years, stigmas are indeed lifting in cultures where the threat is becoming more containable. But we’re still enmeshed in a culture where the very name of the disease signifies horror in the abstract; there’s a paradoxic simultaneity to Western perceptions of the disease that the joke thrives on in order to elicit applause. Clapping for the demise of Trump, in this case, is an extremely fraught gesture that shows a society caught between an overwhelming fear that oppresses the infected and a newfangled optimism about the future of AIDS treatment.