2016: Obama’s America spends an hour and a half advocating a partially wild theory on the very fringes of the Republican Party. That it does so is irrelevant to its overall quality. Every documentary ever made is biased. From Bill Maher’s Religulous to that incredible HBO special about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, they’re all created for a specific reason, sometimes with goals as big as denouncing religion and sometimes with goals as small as reminding us how special a rivalry was. The only thing that truly matters, at least from a job-well-done standpoint, is whether or not the final product is effective in delivering its biased message.
In order to accomplish this goal, most documentary filmmakers use humor, popular music, snazzy visual effects and/ or emotional images to keep the pace of their film exciting, even for observers who might not be super on board with the subject matter. Filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, a college president and former White House employee, mostly eschews these typical conventions in an effort to explain his case more as a scholar would. Large segments of 2016’s runtime are actually just D’Souza talking to the camera, which in a way, is noble. Unfortunately, in this case, it’s also misguided. By limiting his approach, he makes one’s enjoyment of his film almost 100% linked to a willingness to buy into his argument, and since he’s attempting to prove a hypothesis that’s 10% crazy, it’s an uphill battle, to put it nicely.
D’Souza’s argument goes something like this: Barack Obama’s father was a radical, firmly opposed to colonization. He was never around during the future President’s childhood, but Obama’s mother kept his memory alive by instilling his values into their son. This created a strange, fucked-up mindset for the child as he tried to live up to the fake, idealized standards of a man who was not there. Moving around the world before winding up in Hawaii, Obama was exposed to many more militants, all of whom offered their own trinkets of wisdom to go alongside his dad’s. Ultimately, this created a man who is aggressively anti-American and aggressively anti-Colonialist.
Now, here’s the problem. Most of that argument is not scandalous. In fact, given Obama’s extensive writings on the subject and what is in the public record, the non-crazy 90% is proveable. To his credit, D’Souza makes a valiant attempt to do so. He quotes extensively from Obama’s book, travels to Indonesia, Kenya and Hawaii, interviews Barack Sr’s radical buddies and even cites an article the late patriarch wrote, all of which is extremely effective in proving the elder Obama was a shitty father opposed to colonization, and some of the influences around after him were on the fringes of the political left. Unfortunately, that’s not the part of the hypothesis that needs all the evidence.
What needs to be proven is the crazy 10% because it’s one of the boldest claims a documentary has ever tried to make. Think about it for a second. This film argues the President of the United States is intentionally making decisions against America’s best interests. While not inherently impossible, an allegation like that needs a mountain of evidence. It needs a lengthy analysis. What we’re given is a cursory list of policy decisions made under his presidency. D’Souza seems to think they’ll be easily accepted as the second half of a cause and effect argument he started by proving the President has spent lots of time with leftist influences, but even given his upbringing, Obama’s apprehension to get aggressive with Iran puts him in line with most Democrats. What we’re supposed to take as a sign of radicalism just as easily plays as liberalism, and the same thing goes for the President’s views on government spending, stockpiles of weapons and taxes.
Deep within this documentary, there are two separate stories that deserve exhaustive analysis. There’s the story of Barack Sr.’s radicalism, and there’s the story of where America might actually be with four more years under Barack Jr. When D’Souza focuses on the former, he does pretty well, but when he uses the loosest of arguments to try and link to the latter, the connection falls apart.
Biased is okay. Poorly executed is not.