2016: Effective, well done, a caveat or two
I was surprised to discover that Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America opened in my little town on Friday. I wasn’t expecting that, given the limited release and our off-the-beaten-track charm. But there it was, so I went to the very first showing at 12:30 PM.
The effectiveness of 2016 comes from its use of imagery to overlay the narrative. It’s one thing to read D’Souza’s thesis on Barack Obama (Jr. and Sr.). It’s another thing to see images conveying its elements.
D’Souza starts the narrative with himself, which is a questionable composition choice. I know one of his chief themes is contrasting Obama’s biography with his, since they were born in the same year and both came from a background steeped in anti-colonialism. But it might have been more powerful to begin by painting Obama, and then bring in the contrast with D’Souza.
The sequence comes off like D’Souza presenting his life as the ordinary standard from which Obama, Jr. deviates. I believe what he means to convey is that it is possible – and in fact better – to overcome your philosophical roots in anti-colonialism: look what Dinesh D’Souza did, as opposed to Obama, Jr. That’s a valid point, but it could be made more explicitly. The passage with the brown hands – D’Souza observing that he and Obama, Jr. are the same color – comes off unfortunately like a cheap, throw-away impression. If it had been paired with an outright statement that “brown people” don’t have to obsess over race and a history of colonialism that is now 50 years in the rearview mirror, it would, for me, have been more effective.
D’Souza’s thesis is basically the narrow one that Obama, Jr. is an anti-colonialist like Obama, Sr.: that that is the “dream” from the president’s father, and it animates whatever Obama, Jr. does in politics. The film is very good at putting the viewer in the milieu of Jakarta or Nairobi, which continue to feel “different” enough to engage the American viewer’s sense of distance and wonder. Conveying the difference of Obama, Jr.’s childhood and his idea of cultural roots – the difference from American life – is the movie’s most effective accomplishment.
Insofar as he makes his own point about Obama, Jr. and anti-colonialism, D’Souza does it well. I think it would have been useful to develop the idea of “anti-colonialism” more, so that it was clearer how it relates to the president’s current policies. An important point is also begging to be made, and isn’t in the movie: that anti-colonialism is a dead idea, like all the others Obama and his advisors work from. It is an antique, like Marxism, with its spirit gone and nothing left but a deformed death mask: suitable for museums but not for modern use.
Not only was anti-colonialism never usefully descriptive of reality – it doesn’t even matter anymore. The fight against colonialism was won half a century ago, and two generations have emerged that never knew it. As with the themes about “war on women” and “racism” and other rhetorical campaigns waged by Team Obama in the language of 1960s radicalism, anti-colonialism is a dead letter. It is pathetic and sad to think that policy for America today might be made on the premise of it.
Imagine carrying the elaborate grudge inside yourself for 40-odd years, as reality forges ahead around you, making it ridiculous. Obama is surrounded by practitioners who have made a set of outdated grudges their life’s work, and they are still battening on the people with their financially costly themes of anger and vengeance – none of them updated from ca. 1968.
The film predicts, in broad strokes, what America will look like in 2016 if Obama is reelected. The pattern of “grudge-holding battening” will simply drive up the national debt. 2016 suggests a figure of $20 trillion, which is perfectly reasonable. The film makes the point that if America’s monetary solvency collapses, there is nowhere else in the world to go: no refuge from the chaos. That’s true, and it’s why even our enemies are sticking with the dollar and waiting to position themselves better for the aftermath.
D’Souza’s other major prediction is that a “United States of Islam” will emerge across North Africa and the Middle East by 2016. With this, I do not agree. The emerging Islamist governments of Egypt, Turkey, and Iran will continue to compete with each other for primacy. Saudi Arabia will remain on her path of sclerotic “leadership.” Other Muslim nations will coalesce around them and loose “blocs” will form and fall apart. The prominent Islamist nations will profess friendship and unity on a regular basis, but that won’t be the governing dynamic at the deck-plate level. To unite a caliphate, you need a caliph, and there won’t be one by 2016. There will still be several aspiring to the job.
That won’t make the Middle East less volatile or potentially threatening. If Obama is reelected, the issue of state-Islamism will indeed be at the top of our concerns in 2016.
There is a personal element to D’Souza’s treatment of the Obama story that is both endearing and the basis for a caveat. D’Souza is right, I think, that the personal approach – the comparison of two lives that started in 1961; two “brown” lives steeped in foreign culture and ideas – is compelling. It will get and hold moviegoers’ attention.
It may also blind D’Souza to an analytical point that I, for one, would like to see developed. D’Souza has overlaid the narrative in Dreams from My Father on the story of Obama, Jr.s life, looking for the consequences of a son’s search for his father – an engrossing theme for any man.
But Obama, Jr. created a narrative about his father. He lived with his mother, and was heavily influenced by her. He lived with his grandparents in Hawaii. He was taught by teachers at his Indonesian madrassa, at the Punahou School on Oahu, and by professors in college. He didn’t create the influence of these people on his life; their influence created him. None of these people left the political record Obama, Sr. did, but they are the ones I want to know more about.
Bonus material from the same theater visit: Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom) is out there making an over-the-top mess of Gatsby even as I type, and I can tell it’s gonna hurt. I’m as down as the next person with the “Redford can’t act” criticism of the big, slow-paced 1970s treatment with Mia Farrow, but come on: Leonardo DiCaprio? He did an interesting turn as Howard Hughes, but he – and Howard Hughes – are the anti-Gatsby.
The pulsating frenzy depicted in the trailer – glitz, shvitz, wild glamour, sexual innuendo (and a hilarious, sophomoric “diversity” vibe) – is all Moulin Rouge, with no F. Scott Fitzgerald in sight.
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