On Saturday night, in the heart of Obama’s America, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, I paid $10 to see 2016: Obama’s America, the anti-Obama documentary from Dinesh D’Souza that has been a sleeper summer hit, expanding from one screen in Houston on July 13th to wider release at more than a thousand theaters, finally cracking the box-office top ten this weekend. Though I’d read that the documentary was doing surprisingly well in New York City, even at the Union Square multiplex, I walked into the theater half-expecting it to be empty. Who in this quiet corner of bougie Brooklyn is going to see a movie that takes Obama’s multi-culti life story and uses it not as cause for celebration, but rather as evidence that he is working his way through an insidious agenda meant to level the global playing field until America is on a sad par with developing countries like, say, Kenya and Indonesia?
The theater, it turned out, was not empty: there were 20 or so attendees, about a third of whom were sitting alone. A plurality were elderly white men. Four were people of color. I might have been the only person under 40. One couple had driven in from Mill Basin, a suburban-like neighborhood in far south Brooklyn. Another was visiting from Pittsburgh, and was “surprised” to find the film playing here. In the ladies room after the movie, a pair of Russian immigrant women, one dressed in a T-shirt with the Fendi logo and painted-on eyebrows, told me that America was lately reminding them of the Soviet Union.
According to Noah Elgart, who was manning the box office and whose family owns the theater, this was a typical crowd—sparse, elderly. It’s been mostly older people seeing the show in Cobble Hill. They decided to screen the film after a customer inquired and Elgart—in his twenties, and a self-described “independent voter”—was intrigued enough to push his father on the issue. They’ve been getting angry phone calls and Facebook postings about showing it in Cobble Hill, but at the family’s other theater, in Kew Gardens, Queens (part of the congressional district where Republican Bob Turner pulled off his surprising special-election victory to replace former Congressman Anthony Weiner—a victory that was widely interpreted as a canary in the coal mines for Obama’s prospects with the Jewish vote), it’s been doing much better.
The success of the film (made for $2.5 million and funded by 25 or so private investors) probably has a lot to do with its widespread promotion on conservative talk radio, but on the phone, D’Souza told me that he thinks it’s striking a chord not for the policy, but for the plot. “[Moviegoers] find the story, particularly as occasionally told by Obama, to be riveting and really dramatic.” That story, as in the splashy 2010 Forbes article that inspired the film and his book The Roots of Obama's Rage is Obama’s own biography—indeed, D’Souza often uses the president’s own voice from his audiobook narration of Dreams From My Father. In this case, Obama’s polyglot background is read not as an extraordinary, only-in-America story, but as the reason for his deep “anticolonial” bias. In D’Souza’s version of the Obama presidency, small pieces of evidence (Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill that was in the White House back to the Brits; he doesn’t support Britain in the dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands) are marshaled in service of the larger argument that he wants to put the rest of the world on equal footing with the United States in a way that will inevitably mean a degradation of the American way of life.
What’s most troubling about the film is the relatively sophisticated way in which D’Souza manages to “other” Obama, even, or especially, while talking slowly and at about an eighth-grade reading level to his audience. He affects an air of puzzled investigatory journalism—“What is Obama’s dream?” he asks. To D’Souza, the president’s dream is nothing short of the death of the American one. We are told that Obama’s founding fathers are not Franklin and Jefferson, but rather (relatively marginal) figures in his life like Bill Ayers and Edward Said. There’s a reminder that Obama’s Hawaiian high school had a liberal curriculum that can be boiled down to, in D’Souza’s phrasing “oppression studies.” There’s a faux-measured conclusion that anti-colonialism can, occasionally, translate into “anti-white.” Images of squalor in the third-world countries Obama has personal ties to are juxtaposed with discussions of his current presidency and the sad state of our economy.
It’s a point of pride for D’Souza that he’s not a birther. He takes care to establish early on his belief in Obama’s Hawaiian birth. But the film’s goal doesn’t, in the end, seem all that different from what the birthers have pushed—only, anticipating criticism, he goes at it in a far more sophisticated, insidious way. D’Souza wants to make it clear that this isn’t about race, that it’s not about Obama as a black man. Nor is it about nativism. (Though that doesn’t stop him from liberally sprinkling in tribal drum sound effects.) He himself is an immigrant, D’Souza reminds us, and he loves America. His immigrant status, it would seem, safeguards him against accusations of bias, and lets him make the argument that someone who takes other cultures so seriously and with such particular psychological baggage couldn’t possibly have America’s true best interests at heart. “The idea that Obama is an Other is not an invention of the right but an invention of Obama supporters,” says D’Souza. “They said from the beginning: He is not like everybody else, look how multicultural he is, he is not your typical white male. And all I’m saying is, OK, let’s look at exactly how multicultural he is. Let’s look at how he really is different. In a way you could argue that our film takes multiculturalism seriously.”
Seriously as a threat, anyway. In our conversation, D’Souza kept mentioning that his film didn’t have the marketing budget of films it’s competing against, like Dark Knight. But what it does have is a villain (Obama) and a hero under duress (the American way of life). With this formula, is it any wonder it’s become a summer blockbuster?