Directed by: Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan
Premise: A documentary about President Barack Obama’s early influences, analyzing his past and his relationship with his father in order to define Obama’s worldview. The filmmakers conclude that Obama possesses a post-colonial, anti-capitalist ideology that drives his administration’s policies.
What Works: In evaluating documentary films, especially op-ed documentaries like 2016: Obama’s America, it is helpful to distinguish between the cinematic accomplishments of the film and the substance of its argument. Although these things largely overlap it is shortsighted to completely dismiss a film that is well made even if its representation of the facts is flawed. With that in mind, 2016: Obama’s America does have moments in which the filmmakers create imagery that effectively illustrates their points. This is done especially well as the film maps out the life and travels of Barack Obama’s father. There is also a provocative segment about the racial politics of the 2008 presidential election. This section features commentary by Shelby Steele who has written about the subject of white guilt and Obama’s symbolic appeal for white voters. The film’s treatment of the subject is incomplete, as it regards Obama’s race as though it were the only element of the 2008 election, but this segment does raise interesting issues about the electorate that are worth exploring further.
What Doesn’t: 2016: Obama’s America is uneven as a motion picture and it has significant faults in its filmmaking. The sound is often poor with Dinesh D’Souza’s voice frequently distorting. Notably, this does not just occur in the interview sequences but also in his narration, which ought to have been afforded another take or better mastering in the post-production process. The visuals in the film also range widely in quality. The picture presents D’Souza interviewing several people over the phone but each person is photographed separately from D’Souza, often lounging in a yard or an office while sipping a beverage. Although the content of what they say may be earnest, the presentation is ludicrous. The film suffers similarly in its dramatic recreations of moments in Obama’s life; these scenes look hokey like the reenactments on 1980s television shows like Unsolved Mysteries or Rescue: 911. Both the interviews and the reenactments make the film appear artificial which in turn hurts its credibility as a documentary. But whatever its technical faults, the most serious problems of 2016: Obama’s America are in its argumentation. To start, this entire film is an exercise in armchair psychology. The filmmakers attempt to string three ideas together: the beliefs of Barack Obama’s absentee father, the worldview of the president, and Obama’s governance. This exploration has no credibility. The filmmakers do not interview anyone with direct or relevant knowledge of the president and the filmmaker’s claims are tenuous at best. This is exposed most clearly when D’Souza interviews Barack Obama’s half-brother George. He should be the star witness of the filmmaker’s prosecution but this scene ends up being the moment in which the documentary jumps the shark. D’Souza asks leading questions, clearly hoping to uncover something disparaging about the president but George Obama makes it clear that he met his half-brother only once, many years earlier, and admits that he doesn’t know anything. Having failed to sufficiently characterize the beliefs of Barack Obama’s father or how they impact the president’s worldview, the filmmakers move onto their third plank: linking the president’s supposed ideology to the actions of his administration. Here the link between filmmaking and reality decisively divorces, as the documentarians spend the last twenty minutes of the picture setting their hair on fire while screaming that the sky is falling through a series of baseless claims. But beyond being poorly researched and intellectually dishonest, 2016: Obama’s America is especially pernicious because it reinforces a particular narrative about Barack Obama: that he secretly harbors a hatred of white culture and is not an American. In that sense, this film is a form of birtherism and it appeals to the same racial tensions as brain-dead protesters screaming about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The lack of evidence and outright dishonesty do not seem to matter to the filmmakers but that is unsurprising given their previous credits. 2016: Obama’s America is hosted and co-directed by Dinesh D’Souza who had written the books The Roots of Obama’s Rage and Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream; 2016: Obama’s America is a cinematic presentation of the arguments of those books which have been widely discredited by both leftwing and rightwing critics. This film was also co-directed and written by John Sullivan, the producer of the creationist documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed a film that was denounced by the nonpartisan American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Bottom Line: Agitprop documentaries often preach to the choir and are usually hailed or condemned depending on whether they confirm or conflict with the petty partisan allegiances of the viewer. But the problems with 2016: Obama’s America go beyond politics. There is a serious conservative documentary to be made criticizing the presidency of Barack Obama but this is not it. This is the kind of picture that is poisonous to the culture and its filmmakers tap into some of the ugliest facets of American politics. 2016: Obama’s America should not be categorized with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 or Frank Capra’s Why We Fight; instead, this film ought to be regarded with the same ridicule as Reefer Madness.
Episode: #404 (September 9, 2012)