Despite being a box-office success with its conservative audience, the political documentary 2016: Obama’s America has been largely a flop with film critics. Many reviewers focused on what they deemed to be a “polemic”-like narrative or took issue with some of the facts of the film, but one review in particular caused a great deal of controversy when it accused the movie of racism, in that it allegedly speaks a great deal “in racial code.”
That review was by Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman. Echoing the sentiments of other liberals who have accused Republicans of the “otherization” of Obama — trying to paint him as a foreign entity worthy of fear — Gleiberman accused the movie of having an “underlying message … that Obama is a stranger, a man you ‘don’t know,’ a refugee from another land, another culture. Deep down, he’s an angry Third World upstart just like his father.”
“By now, most of us understand that the “birther” theory … is really a code for race. And what’s insidious about 2016: Obama’s America is that the whole movie, in a sense, is code for the birther theory,” Gleiberman continued. “It never says: Obama wasn’t born here. But it signifies that he might as well not have been.”
Gleiberman then likened the film’s portrayal of President Obama to a Republican “Southern strategy,” which contends that the GOP attempts to win elections by appealing to the racist sentiments in America. He cites the “clear” racist message of the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad as a precursor to this sort of racially-tinged mudslinging that he believes filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza and 2016 engages in.
Mediaite spoke to 2016‘s producer, Gerald R. Molen, who flatly calls such charges of racism “patently ridiculous.”
“Absolutely nothing contained in the film that implies racism,” he said, adding that the film’s director D’Souza is an Indian-American, and “if I were racist, I wouldn’t be aligning myself with him.”
Molen believes that Gleiberman’s charges reflect a common problem among the political left: “If you can’t say anything factual, they resort to the racism line.”
A veteran Hollywood producer, Molen has been behind box office hits like Schindler’s List, Rain Man, Jurassic Park, and Minority Report. “It’s hard to be a racist in Hollywood,” he said, adding that the film’s critics should “talk to anyone in Hollywood, and find them saying I’m racist. You can’t find anyone who will say it. There is not a racist bone in my body.” If he felt there was a racial message behind the film, Molen said he would not have ever considered producing it.
But those like Gleiberman who believe the film is racially-coded would argue that the film’s racism isn’t necessarily outright: the “otherization” or “foreignization” of Obama’s ideas implies that he is not one of “us” and therefore appeals to baser racist sentiments like birtherism.
However, Molen pointed out that the movie denounces birtherism the moment D’Souza matter-of-factly narrates: “On August 4, 1961, Barack Obama II is born in the Kapiolani Medical Center in Honolulu. His birth is recorded in two local newspapers.”
But what of the “insidious” nature of pointing out the “anti-colonial” views Obama’s father held and therefore, as the movie contends, the now-president deeply believes? Or what about pointing out to its audience that the president hasn’t released a slew of items that would reveal a great deal of his background? Some would say those questions invoke the same racially-coded “otherization” that birtherism deals with openly.
“Because we ask questions, we’re racist?” Molen shot back. “That shows me that those critics operate from the bottom of the pit.”
He explained the film’s questions about Obama’s past as such: “The mainstream media fell down on their job and decided not to fully vet the president. But regardless of who is president, we deserve a vetting of the guy.”
“There’s just so much secrecy with Obama,” he continued. “Why won’t he release his school grades? Why can’t we have some insight into his academic prowess? Whether he wrote any great papers? Why doesn’t the media plead with this guy they have so much respect for to have him open up?”
Of course, the opposite side of the political aisle would contend that Republican candidate Mitt Romney is secretive as well, namely about releasing his tax returns beyond two years. Molen calls that equivalency “totally bogus,” adding that “Romney’s given up, just like Bush before him, the required two years. If he gives up a few more years, all it’s gonna do is open up the door for them to find something, anything, that can be construed as controversial.”
“If they are gonna use Romney’s tax returns as an excuse,” he said, “then what are they afraid of? What are they trying to hide?”
Molen also explained that he is baffled to be in the middle of such controversy: “I find it to be such idiocy. All the film does is say to people, ‘If this interests you, do your own research.’ We just want to find out, through legitimate ways, about his background.”
But as a Hollywood regular, Molen said he hasn’t experienced much of a backlash from his own powerful liberal friends. “Only a couple of comments,” but surprisingly, he said, “I’ve never had a bad experience.”
He came to this particular film via a mutual friend who said that D’Souza was looking for help putting together a project. “I had his books, and I found his writing interesting, so I flew to Los Angeles and met with him.”
“I’ve always been interested in politics. I love my country and therefore I am interested,” he said. “We’re losing a lot of the personal individualism in this country. We see more of a nanny state now: it’s slowly becoming a society of makers and takers.”
Aside from the critics who have labeled the film “demented” and “racially-coded,” there have been a fair amount of negative reviews — including one by libertarian Gene Healy — that simply call out the film for perceived factual inaccuracies and “ludicrous” theories.
“We can have the debate over the facts,” Molen said, thrilled by the possibility of such a conversation. But once you throw out the racism charge, he said, then it’s over.
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