At a friend’s request, I went to the theater Sunday to see “2016: Obama’s America” (it’s true, I’m not the most political person I know). The movie, if you haven’t heard, is the work of Dinesh D’Souza, the Indian-born conservative commentator and college president whose 2010 book, “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” argued the president’s world view was shaped heavily by his anti-colonialist Kenyan father.
I’m no movie critic, so I’ll spare you my thoughts on the cinematography (I’ll only note that D’Souza worked on the film with Hollywood veteran Gerald R. Molen, and it shows in the film’s production quality). The movie’s about our president’s past and what that means for our future, and I’ll focus on that.
D’Souza dispenses early on with any notions of birtherism, noting briefly, but pointedly, that Obama was born in Hawaii. Instead, he makes the far more interesting argument that what’s foreign is Obama’s ideology, shaped in absentia by a father he barely knew. His evidence for his claim is two-fold: Excerpts from Obama’s own autobiography, “Dreams From My Father” (the film liberally quotes from the audio version of the book, narrated by Obama himself), and footage from D’Souza’s travels to the places of Obama’s youth, Hawaii and Indonesia, as well as to Kenya. There are also phone conversations, videotaped on both ends, with sociologists such as Shelby Steele who try to explain what makes Obama tick.
What D’Souza turns up on his trips is often less than compelling: Brief doesn’t begin to describe what he gets from an interview with a retired Hawaii professor who knew Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham; a lengthier exchange with Obama’s half-brother, George, in Nairobi ultimately fails to land a blow on the president. But that’s not to say there’s no substance to the story.
Briefly, D’Souza’s narrative goes like this: The elder Obama was an anti-colonialist (this much is confirmed in interviews with a pair of his contemporaries; Obama Sr. of course died in a car wreck in 1982) whose antipathy toward Kenya’s British rulers was distinct from America’s earlier rebellion from the British in that it was also a rejection of the West and capitalism. Dunham (who died in 1995) fervently transferred these beliefs to a young Barack — and even sent him home to Hawaii from Indonesia when her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, took a job with a U.S. oil company and got a little too friendly with actual breathing capitalists. Back in Hawaii, her father arranged for young Barack to have a mentor named Frank Marshall Davis, a writer and card-carrying Communist who was on the FBI’s radar. From there, we hear of Obama’s adult associations with which we’re more familiar, including Bill Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
This is a vetting of Obama’s background that, D’Souza plausibly argues, was given short shrift in the 2008 campaign. For instance, D’Souza notes that Obama’s famous speech about race relations, to address the steady stream of Wright’s controversial statements (uncovered, let’s remember, while he was still contesting the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton), was a deflection from the collectivist black liberation theology that laced Wright’s incendiary sermons. That, D’Souza claims, allowed Obama to keep his dealings with Marxists mostly out of the public eye on his way to the White House.
It is a vetting that is worthwhile for anyone interested in current U.S. politics, if only because it is so reliant on Obama’s own words. (Here, I must acknowledge I haven’t read “Dreams” and can’t say whether D’Souza is cherry-picking Obama’s quotes or taking them out of context; if he did, however, he has given his critics a huge tool to use in discrediting him.) As an immigrant from another former British colony who is the same age as Obama, D’Souza presents an intriguing figure with alternating sympathy for and critique of anti-colonialism.
That’s the first half of the movie. From there, D’Souza delves into purely political commentary and prognostication that most likely will resonate with you, or not, in close correlation with your own political leanings. I won’t spoil his conclusions, but I will say they err toward the most pessimistic, even conspiratorial end of the right side of the spectrum.
If there’s a tragic aspect of the film, it’s that the only people likely to see it are those who have already made up their minds against Barack Obama. It deserves as well an airing among his supporters and those precious few who are unsure about him, to point out where they think D’Souza is wrong and consider the ways he might be right.
– By Kyle Wingfield