DENVER–If it were a movie, nobody would believe it: A conservative writer teams up with a Hollywood producer to make a hard-hitting documentary about a Democratic president during his reelection run that breaks box-office records.
That’s the high concept behind 2016: Obama’s America, which brought its total gross to $30 million over the weekend to become the second highest-grossing political documentary in history, overtaking four out of five Michael Moore documentaries and even Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
The film has its critics, to say the least. President Obama denounced it in a post on barackobama.com as “an insidious attempt to dishonestly smear” him. Movie reviewers have savaged it: On the Rotten Tomatoes website, only two of 14 “top critics” give it a positive review, calling it everything from “fundamentally racist” to “deeply boring.”
But Dinesh D’Souza, who wrote the film with John Sullivan, and producer Gerald Molen, whose credits include Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, are unphased. The film, which spent three weeks in the top 10, is still playing in 1,876 theaters after opening Aug. 24 in wide release, according to Box Office Mojo.
“The mistake that these people [critics] make is in not realizing that when they label my movie racist, they’re also labeling the millions of Americans who enjoyed it and found it informative as also being racist, and generally speaking, people don’t take too kindly to being called disgusting names like that,” said Molen in a Sept. 12 post on the Town Hall website. “The folks, not liberal film critics who are out of touch with the people they purport to serve, will decide the fate of our movie.”
The film is drawn from two books about President Obama by D’Souza, who narrates and stars in the movie. His thesis: that the president was shaped by his exposure to anti-colonialist thought during his boyhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, with critical implications for his policies and the future of the nation.
This is hardly the standard anti-Obama line. D’Souza’s is a highly original argument and one that perhaps only he could make: Born in India in 1961, the same year as Obama, D’Souza says he grew up in an atmosphere charged with the same anti-colonial, anti-American feeling that Obama would have encountered during his boyhood in Indonesia and Hawaii.
Indeed, the first part of the movie is as much about D’Souza as it is Obama. We learn that D’Souza left India to attend Dartmouth College, where he became a star in Republican circles after founding the conservative Dartmouth Review during the heyday of the Reagan years.
D’Souza, now a prominent conservative author and president of King’s College in New York, said he was puzzled by some of Obama’s early, seemingly contradictory policy moves, prompting his search for “Obama’s compass” and “Obama’s dream.”
“I realized I was trying to fit Obama into American history when I should have been looking for Obama’s own history,” says D’Souza in the movie.
Obama clearly has the most unique background of any president. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was 17 when she met Barack Obama Sr., a Kenyan exchange student who already had a wife and child back in Africa. Shortly after Barack Obama was born, his father left to pursue his studies at Harvard University.
His parents split, his mother remarried, and the family moved to Indonesia, the home of his stepfather. Even so, D’Souza says Stanley Ann continued to revere Barack Sr., glossing over his faults and idealizing him to her son. And the father was a committed leftist and ardent critic of colonialism; for example, D’Souza unearths a paper he wrote before his death in 1982 in which he argues that a 100% tax rate is reasonable.
“Anti-colonialism is not about helping the poor so much as it is about stripping the rich,” says D’Souza.
Returning to Hawaii after his mother’s second divorce, D’Souza says Obama would have been further influenced by his friendship with Communist writer Frank Davis Marshall in Hawaii; his exposure to the anti-colonialist current rampant in Hawaiian academic circles, and his mentors, including left-wing intellectuals such as Harvard’s Edward Said.
Of course, it’s one thing to be exposed to certain beliefs at a young age, and another to adopt them in adulthood. While Obama rarely mentions colonialism in his public appearances, D’Souza argues that the proof is in his policies.
For example, Obama’s head-scratching decision to send back to England the bust of Winston Churchill in the White House. The incident is revealing, says D’Souza, because while Churchill is hailed as a hero in the Western world, he’s decried as a colonialist in the Third World.
Early in Obama’s first term, D’Souza says he made three predictions about how the president would behave if he truly harbored an anti-colonialist world view: That he would spend money as if it didn’t matter; that he would do nothing to reign in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and that if forced to balance the budget, he would cut military spending and raise taxes.
Those moves are designed to level the global playing field by lowering the economic and military might of the world’s lone superpower, bringing it more in line with the rest of the world. A second term will bring more of the same, only more so, says D’Souza, given that Obama will no longer face reelection.
“The first time we did not know what change would look like. Now we do,” says D’Souza at the end of the film. “Which dream will we carry into the 21st century: the American dream, or Obama’s dream?”
As an entertainer, D’Souza is no Michael Moore, but the mild-mannered academic’s earnest approach gives the movie much of its power and credibility. D’Souza may disagree profoundly with Obama, but he keeps the debate civil, with none of Moore’s bomb-throwing antics or cheap shots. Well, maybe one cheap shot: The film does cut a few times to a goofy photo of Obama from college smoking pot.
Since the film’s release, D’Souza has been busy countering the fact-checkers, including the president, with fact-checks of his own.
“I’m not concerned about being the recipient of Obama’s rage. I’ve earned it,” said D’Souza in a Sept. 13 online statement. “If he’s scared of the film 2016: Obama’s America, perhaps he has reason to be scared. So let’s debate the issues, Mr. President. But let’s stick to the facts. And be careful, sir. Your rage is showing.”