2016: Obama’s America opened on one screen in Houston. Then it went to four screens. There were lines outside the doors. Then the movie opened in Nashville, Anchorage, Kalispell (a town in Montana), Dallas . . . Eventually, it was playing on more than 2,000 screens across America.
This movie is the fourth-highest-grossing documentary of all time. The No. 1 such movie is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. No. 2 is March of the Penguins, and No. 3 is a Justin Bieber movie. 2016, as you see, is the second-highest-grossing political documentary. It is ahead of the other Michael Moore movies, plus An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore film.
2016 was created by Dinesh D’Souza, who based the film on two of his books: The Roots of Obama’s Rage, published two years ago, and Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream, published this year. According to D’Souza, the key to understanding President Obama is to be found in the president’s own book: Dreams from My Father, published in 1995, before the author started running for office. The father’s dreams were anti-colonialist, anti-American, and leftist. The son has now taken those dreams to the White House, fulfilling them.
That is D’Souza’s take, anyway. 2016: Obama’s America is “controversial,” to use a weak but handy word.
D’Souza has been well known since he was a college student, one of the brainy hellions at theDartmouth Review. This is the conservative newspaper on that campus. Once upon a time, at least one Dartmouth Review staffer was almost expelled from the college for “vexatious oral exchange” with a professor. “Vexatious oral exchange” was a byword on the right, for some years.
D’Souza had come from Bombay, where he was born and raised. Ignorant, hippie-dippie students were fascinated by his name, his homeland, his otherness. “Oh, dude, I love India!” they would say. “Ever been there?” D’Souza would ask. “No,” they would say. “What do you think you love about it?” he would continue. “The dowry? Arranged marriage? The caste system? Poverty? Hopelessness?”
The young immigrant embraced Americanism — in particular, Reaganism — with a vengeance. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1983, he went to Washington, eventually joining the Reagan White House. Over the past 25 years, he has authored a string of books, on political, cultural, and religious subjects. He is also president of The King’s College in New York.
He made 2016 with $2.5 million, contributed by 25 people. He borrowed $7.5 million, and then another $2 million, for publicity. The film has now grossed about $33 million. And it has appeared in the heated atmosphere of a presidential election. D’Souza says he learned this from Michael Moore — who dropped Fahrenheit 9/11 into the 2004 election. The candidate he was aiming at, President George W. Bush, won anyway.
As D’Souza explains, a standard Hollywood film has its premieres in New York and L.A. When the film goes national, its makers and backers hope for a big, big opening weekend. That’s the ballgame. 2016 was much different. D’Souza and his team started small, in conservative America. Then they “ramped up,” as D’Souza says. Before long, the movie was in New York and L.A., where it has done well. D’Souza makes this comment about Union Square in Manhattan: It’s “not exactly thick with Romney voters.” He has been surprised by the success of 2016 overall. The film has exceeded everyone’s expectations. D’Souza gives several reasons for this success.
First, there is a hunger for information about Obama. He is one of the most famous men in the world — president of the United States, after all — but strangely little known. The movie’s ad slogan is, “Love him, hate him: You don’t know him.” Second, the story is interesting — that is, Obama’s story. He is at the heart of the film. Third, that film is well made: no amateur effort. Fourth, conservative radio hosts were enthusiastic about the movie. Initially, Michael Berry in Houston was key. Then came such national figures as Rush Limbaugh, Mike Gallagher, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Sean Hannity.
The fifth reason for the film’s success is the most important, says D’Souza: word of mouth. Not just the mouths of the radio hosts, important as they were, but the mouths of ordinary ticket-buyers, who told their friends about 2016, who then told their friends. This is “advertising money can’t buy,” as they say in the business (and all sorts of business).
2016 tells Obama’s story, yes — or a version of that story. But it also tells D’Souza’s story. In fact, the first ten minutes of the film is devoted to D’Souza. Critics are always being told, “Your review says as much about you as it says about your subject.” Often that is true. In the film, D’Souza says he relates to Obama, and has insights into Obama, owing to his own background. He learned anti-colonialism in India — from his grandfather, for example. He knows the humiliations that colonialism can inflict. He knows the resentments that can result.
The anti-colonialist view, in brief, is that the United States and other Western countries got rich because they exploited Third World countries. The Third World is poor because the West is rich. D’Souza says that Obama wants to “shrink America’s footprint in the world because he thinks we’ve been stepping on the world.” He wants to “knock America off its pedestal” and redistribute our wealth, thereby ushering in a better, more equal, more just world.
Many conservatives roll their eyes at D’Souza’s movie, and his Obama books. I don’t roll my eyes, though I may raise an eyebrow or two: D’Souza is a brilliant fellow, to be heard out. But I think he goes too far in the end. He believes that Obama has a hidden agenda to bring America down: that the bad effects of his policies are exactly the effects he intends.
I also think that what D’Souza says about Obama, specifically, applies to the American Left in general. Certainly to our professoriate. Who among us was not taught the “anti-colonialist view”? If you were not, you went to a very special college indeed. And isn’t Obama in tune with a great many of his fellow Democratic politicians? Virtually all of them? Listen to the first George Bush in 1988, talking about Michael Dukakis: “He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. And I see America as the leader — a unique nation with a special role in the world.” In other words: “Dukakis wants to knock America off its pedestal.”
What Obama has, and other politicians do not, is a creepy cult following. 2016 shows schoolchildren being led by their giddy teacher in a peppy little song in praise of Obama. They are wearing “Hope” T-shirts; Obama banners surround them. Even the president’s supporters, most of them, should find this scene unsettling. It has a hint of North Korea about it.
Back to the professoriate for a moment: In the movie, D’Souza points out that Obama studied with Edward Said, the late professor of literature who peddled the anti-colonialist view and related poison. I did not take a class from Said. But I took classes from many who revered and followed him. We are all children of Said, sadly. Paul Johnson once wrote that Said “has been responsible for more harm than any other intellectual of his generation.” (He also called him a “malevolent liar and propagandist.”)
Like everyone else, D’Souza has a right to his opinion. We perhaps have a special right — a double right — to an opinion about our president. I don’t believe that D’Souza hates Obama. I think he thinks he understands him. He has a theory. He believes he knows what motivates Obama. It’s very hard to prove motivation. It’s hard enough to discern motivation in oneself, much less in others. I recall hearing something from a professor, years ago — the historian David Herbert Donald: “The most important things in history aren’t provable.”
In any case, you don’t have to think that D’Souza has spoken the whole truth about Obama to appreciate that he has spoken some truth, or has a theory worth considering. The world is still pondering Napoleon, churning out books by the dozen, or thousands.
2016 may be a box-office hit, but it is not a critical hit: As a rule, critics have been unkind, dismissing the film as a piece of right-wing propaganda. The Obama campaign ignored the film for several weeks, then attacked it as “a movie that falsely smears President Obama.” (The campaign likes the odd phrase “falsely smears.” It said the same thing about a Romney ad.) Stanley Fish, a literature professor almost as famous as Said, blogged about2016 for theNew York Times. He said he was a friend of D’Souza’s. Nevertheless, he criticized the film freely. He was then criticized by readers for writing about the film at all — for taking it seriously. Fish’s response was cheeky, and bold: He blogged yet again about2016, this time letting D’Souza respond to criticisms.
Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, reviewed the movie. That is one of his part-time jobs, movie reviewing. As he did in 2008, he is campaigning for Obama, particularly among former New Yorkers in Florida (a swing state). But he wrote that 2016 “is extremely well-made and powerful in terms of its attacks on President Barack Obama.” He ended, “Supporters of President Obama will not change their view as a result of seeing this interesting film.” Surely that whole sentence is right, including the last three words.
I believe that D’Souza is dead right about “hunger” — that is his word, and mine, independently. There is a hunger in many Americans to know more about their president. A feeling that he was not “vetted” by the media in 2008. No one has to worry about whether a George W. Bush or a Mitt Romney will be vetted: He will. In 2000, there was a rumor that Bush had once used cocaine. Reporters searched high and low to confirm this. No luck (although there was a drunk-driving arrest). This year, the Washington Post reported that Romney and some others bullied a classmate one day in high school. Then there’s the story of Seamus the dog: strapped to the roof of the Romneys’ station wagon during a family vacation in 1983. The candidate swears the dog was in a comfortable, wind-resistant carrier.
About Obama, however, there was a strange incuriosity. Or rather, a feeling that nothing should spoil the ascent of this man who would be the first black president, even a redeemer president. And there was so much to be curious about! A parade of interesting people had intersected with the candidate’s life. The list includes Frank Marshall Davis, Roberto Unger, Jeremiah Wright, and Bill Ayers. Some of these people were Communists. As America is squeamish about race, America is squeamish about Communism — McCarthyism, you know. Must not appear McCarthyite or Red-baiting. William F. Buckley Jr. observed that no one had done more to set back the cause of anti-Communism than the anti-Communist McCarthy.
Writing at National Review Online four years ago, Stanley Kurtz said that Obama had belonged to the New Party, a left-wing organization. The Obama campaign said that Kurtz was guilty of a “crackpot smear.” On a website called Fight the Smears, the campaign said, “Barack has been a member of only one political party, the Democratic Party.” Today, Kurtz has even stronger evidence that Obama belonged to the New Party. Yet from the media at large, not a peep of interest. It would be one thing if Obama had disavowed a leftist past, saying he had put away childish things. But there has been no such disavowal.
Earlier this year, Edward Klein, a former editor of The New York Times Magazine, came out with a biography of Obama, The Amateur. For the book, he interviewed Reverend Wright, Obama’s “controversial” pastor. Wright said that, during the 2008 campaign, an Obama confidant, Eric Whitaker, came to him and offered $150,000 if he would keep his mouth shut until after Election Day. This may or may not be true. But isn’t it interesting? Shouldn’t it send the media scurrying high and low, to get a definitive answer to the question? You do not hear the sound of scurrying.
D’Souza has capitalized on the belief — the suspicion — that the incumbent has skated by. And that he has been abetted by a media culture hostile to those hostile to Obama, or even skeptical of Obama. In the bargain, D’Souza has engaged in a bit of psychobiography. This is what Fawn Brodie did to Jefferson, Nixon, and others. “You’re not going to put me on the couch,” the first Bush used to say. What he meant, of course, was: “Don’t probe too personally.”
The Obama described, or analyzed, by D’Souza is not an Obama everyone would dislike. Far from it. The anti-colonialist view, or just plain a Left view, is almost as American as apple pie at this stage. Professor Fish wrote that his wife had read D’Souza’s 2010 book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage. “She told D’Souza — he was bemused — that reading it had allowed her to see more clearly what she liked about Obama.” There you go.
As I watched 2016, I kept wondering what Barack Obama himself would think about it. Would he grant that it had some points? Or would he think it all nonsense and defamation — a “false smear,” as his campaign would say? Perhaps he will address this in what could be, if the author is in a frank mood, the most interesting presidential memoir since Grant’s.