A Student’s Review of 2016: Obama’s America
On August 15, I attended a free screening of 2016: Obama’s America. (Special thanks to talk radio host Rusty Humphries and Atlanta radio station WGST for making the film screening happen.) The film was produced by Gerald R. Molen, Academy Award-winning producer of Schindler’s List, and was co-directed by John Sullivan and Dinesh D’Souza, President of King’s College and best-selling author. The film documents the story of President Barack Obama’s early childhood and family life, and seeks to explain how that background might have shaped Obama into the man who would grow up to become President of the United States.
When the film was first announced, it was advertised as a blockbuster that would show the country just who Barack Obama was and how his ideology was shaped and directed by his past. Conservative pundits across the spectrum began plugging the film as a must-see. I’d heard several of Dinesh’s arguments before, in particular his anti-colonialist argument that was featured in his now famous (or infamous, depending on your political leaning) 2010 article in Forbes magazine titled “How Obama Thinks,” and was curious to see what the film would do given the previous work of its primary creator.
So with trusty bag and notebook in tow, I set out to see if the movie lived up to the hype.
And all in all, I have to agree that the film is worth seeing.
For those who read other reviews and may have been lead to believe that the film was made by amateurs, I ask that you kindly check your preconceptions at the door. From the very first minute of 2016 onward, the documentary features some very high production value and clean, professional quality. (Gerald Molen wouldn’t produce just anything, after all.) Using frequent flashbacks, map imagery, and the use of old photography effects, the movie seeks to pull the audience members in and connect them with the people, places, events, and ideas that play such a major role in President Obama’s history.
The film is based heavily on Dinesh’s previous written work, but differs significantly in that he is able to more naturally put the facts into their historical context as the film progresses. Quite often, this is done through the use of Barack Obama’s own voice taken from the audiobook version of his autobiography Dreams from my Father. He uses these excerpts strategically throughout the film to support the ideas that he is putting forward, using Barack Obama’s own words (and voice) to reinforce the narrative and impress certain key points upon the viewer.
The film goes into some depth by utilizing a wide range of interviews. Key to Dinesh’s argument is the life of Barack Obama Sr., the Kenyan anti-colonialist who he claims was key to shaping the worldview of his son, the young Barack Obama. Dinesh effectively reinforces his claims about Obama Sr. with interviews from several of his friends and family still living and residing in Kenya. Another interesting interview with George Obama, Barack’s half-brother, is also revealing. While some see this interview as a misstep, I believe that it served a valuable philosophical purpose. The interview highlighted the differences in ideology between George Obama (who Dinesh argues largely parted from Barack Sr.’s legacy and worldview) and Barack Obama himself (who arguably kept much of his father’s worldview and legacy intact). (You can read about those differences in more detail here.)
The bulk of the film’s content is focused on Barack Obama’s history, including his development as a political figure and his election in 2008. The final part of the film gives a brief overview of how the anti-colonialist ideology may play a major role if President Obama is elected to a second term. This part of the film was quite honestly the scariest, as the theories put forward by Dinesh and his interview subjects paint a very dark picture. Dinesh argues that if Barack Obama truly believes that America would be better not as a superpower, but as one nation among many leading powers, then many of his policy moves from his first term would only be pushed to their natural extremes. Larger-scale disarmament of America’s nuclear missiles (taking our missile count down to a mere 300 warheads) was one of the more eye-popping scenarios raised by the film. Other possible scenarios like economic projections were also very jarring.
The final message that Dinesh wants viewers to take away is made very clear at the end of the film: if the history of Barack Obama and his anti-colonialist philosophy are in fact what is driving his policy decisions, then a second term would be a very bad idea indeed.
It is important to point out that 2016 is not perfect. One personal gripe was a lack of consistent references; this was made more frustrating by the hugely important role that those very facts played in the documentary. Though some articles and quotes were cited briefly in the film itself, others were not. And while much of the research used in the film can be found in Dinesh D’Souza’s other books and in the works of other authors (such as Paul Kengor’s The Communist, which documents the relationship between Barack Obama and Frank Marshall Davis), these other sources were not included on the film’s web site or in the credits. Unfortunately, this renders the movie as a standalone piece more vulnerable to critique from opponents or from the uninformed skeptic.
Another possible weak point, in my view, is the ending itself. Because the projections at the end are so dark and foreboding, more skeptical viewers who had until then followed Dinesh’s historical arguments about President Obama’s father and past might be turned off at that crucial point in the movie. Instead of carrying away the whole movie as something to mull over, they could more easily shake it off with a simple “That guy was nuts.” Because of this, unfortunately, I think the documentary isn’t capable of converting the most diehard of Obama supporters.
The movie as a whole, however, surpasses these weak points and still stands alone as a valuable documentary film. The story of President Barack Obama is reconstructed in a more full fashion, clearly demonstrating where the President came from both historically and ideologically. All of the separate facts and story lines are woven together, and it is much easier to see just how different actors and elements interacted throughout the young Barack Obama’s life and past.
Even though the film won’t affect the truest of true believers, it may effectively inform those individuals who are on the fence about what they should do in the upcoming election. I’d recommend that folks who are on the fence, or who are unfamiliar with Dinesh’s previous work, see the film and consider what it has to say seriously. I would also strongly encourage students of all ages to attend. You may not be the coolest person on the block for seeing the movie (the majority of the crowd in my screening looked to be a generation or two older than me), but you may be a bit smarter for going.
Not everyone will agree with the full content of the film or the conclusions it draws about the future, and that’s just fine. But it would wrong for those critics to deny that Dinesh D’Souza makes a very compelling case. If taken seriously, it will give the viewer new information and tools with which to evaluate the President and his agenda before November. After a 2008 election in which almost no-one knew about the background of the Hope-And-Change Kid from Chicago, 2016: Obama’s America is a refreshing, if sometimes unsettling, change for the better.