One of the surprise movie hits of the summer is Obama 2016, a documentary co-written and directed by the conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza. Despite a limited theatrical release, it is already the top-grossing documentary of the year. It was also the fourth-highest grossing film overall on last Friday, when it expanded from 169 to 1090 screens nationwide.
Although Obama 2016 strongly criticizes the President, it cannot be dismissed as a “hit piece.” For example, D’Souza states flatly that Obama was born in Hawaii. He gives no credence to the view that Obama is a Muslim or other hot-button claims which, even if true, would matter little in terms of the President’s political beliefs. Instead, Obama 2016 seeks to persuade the viewer that Obama’s worldview was formed by the anti-colonialist opinions he absorbed during childhood. This thesis is developed in greater detail in D’Souza’s bestselling book The Roots of Obama’s Rage.
Focusing on the transmission of ideas rather than action and events hardly sounds like riveting cinema, but Obama 2016 develops its theory with polish and verve. The film makes Obama’s intellectual journey come alive with a swiftly-edited series of shots and still photos of people and places from his past. These visuals are interspersed with extensive readings (usually by the President himself) from Obama’s autobiography Dreams From My Father. D’Souza also interviews a number of individuals who played a direct or indirect role in Obama’s intellectual development. This material is assembled in a smooth, cogent manner that lays out the film’s case clearly and transparently.
Much of this case is also compelling. There’s little doubt that Barack Obama imbibed political radicalism from a number of relatives and caretakers in his past. Chief among them was his mother, who idolized third world revolutionaries and others advancing the view that the wealth of developed nations was simply stolen from developing countries. Barack Obama Sr. abandoned his family (first to attend Harvard and ultimately to return to Kenya) shortly after Barack Jr. was born, and his mother apparently transformed his absent father into a kind of mythical leader who was fighting against the British and for the oppressed of his nation. She was far more critical of her second husband, a bourgeois businessman who worked with foreign energy industry executives in Indonesia. Even Obama defenders would find it difficult to deny that the President was thoroughly marinated in left-wing political radicalism from a young age, or that his absent father, a died-in-the-wool socialist, loomed large in Obama’s imagination for much of his life.
The film also does a credible job linking this anti-colonial worldview to some of Obama’s policies and actions as President. This is particularly true with respect to foreign policy, his penchant for apologizing to foreign leaders about America’s past, and the otherwise inexplicable reluctance of an American President to admit that America is an exceptional nation.
In my view, the thesis is noticeably weaker when it comes to domestic policy. Does Obama’s opposition to domestic oil drilling and the Keystone pipeline really reflect a desire to impoverish our nation, as punishment for our ill-gotten economic gains of the past? D’Souza thinks so, but soft-headed environmentalism is a more straightforward and likely explanation. Regardless of how much anti-colonialism he consumed as a youngster, Obama’s mental landscape has undoubtedly assimilated a variety of progressive doctrines over the years. In the interests of advancing its theory, Obama 2016 goes too far in trying to shoehorn every action and thought of the President into an anti-colonial box.
Still, the film succeeds admirably in demonstrating that far too many Americans don’t really know this President. The media in 2008 was so vested in the Obama-as-healer narrative that it did a horrendous job examining the basic facts of his life, or the radicalism to which he was exposed, and participated in, in his past. Obama 2016 is an easily digestible primer on this essential information, which tens of thousands of Americans are fortunately taking the opportunity to see.