Regular readers of my blog will rightly assume that I deprecate this documentary’s contribution to our national discourse. But I did expect the trailer to provide a teaching moment and for that I’m appreciative.
While I anticipated rhetorical excess and propagandistic virtuosity, neither was markedly on display. Rather, I was startled by the ambivalent messages and reasonable tone of official trailer #1, convinced that money was left at the box office by this trailer’s failure to articulate a shrill and sharp representation of Mr. D’Souza’s documentary based on his best-selling and controversial book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage.
As expected, it plays the race card, but crudely and obviously, which suggests a failure of imagination. And in establishing the comparison and contrast between two visions of America– one attributed to Barack Obama, the other attributed to our revered forefathers, the “real Americans”– this 1:47 preview relies on abstract ideas and equivocal imagery rather than the red meat appeals that might have lured even larger crowds.
In its complication and sophistication, the trailer might be representative of the documentary it promotes, but it is less than compelling as a piece of a/v movie marketing.
In the first movement of the trailer, appearing under a reading from Obama’s 1995 biography, Dreams from my Father recorded by the President himself, black Africans are shown conducting a christian burial ceremony in a rural setting. As Obama concludes his remembrance of his father’s internment with the words, “their struggle [of his father and his half-brother] was my birthright,” a line extends onto a map of Africa where the date of his father’s decease in Kenya is specified, followed by shots of violent street protest (involving South and/or Central American’s activists, incongruously). A similar graphic line to that which linked Obama to Africa, now extends to the UK (a target of Kenyan anti-colonial struggle), where it circles the icon of a Crown (classic synechdoche), and then shoots off across Europe where it arrives on the text of Obama’s book. (How’s that for confusing?]
Author, documentarian, conservative firebrand and now trailer voice-over artist D’Souza begins his narration. “Obama has a dream—from his father—that the sins of colonialism be set right and America be downsized,” he calmly and neutrally intones, as images of Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange and beautifully lit shots of New York City succeed one another, interspersed with oddly heroic stills of Obama and the book jacket of D’Souza’s book.
A card, white on black lettering, appears: “Based on the New York Times Bestseller by Dinesh D’Souza,” followed by shots of Mr. D’Souza speaking publicly and additional scenes of an glowing urban landscape. Another card, establishing the Hollywood bonafides of the documentary, concludes this entre-acte: “From Gerald R. Molen, Producer of the Academy Award Winning Best Picture Schindler’s List.”
Excerpts from Obama’s inaugural address– ending on the words, “Change has come to America”- provide the disembodied voice over for still more images of New York and Wall Street, as well as closeups of a Monopoly board and its iconic addresses and tokens: the Hat, a little green house, Jail. This act of the trailer concludes in a minor squabble among young African-Americans whose friendly competition over a Monopoly board has turned ugly.
A shot of an American flag signals the start of the next section in which scenes of peaceful, white protestors (holding candles and smiling), a shot of a statue of George Washington, and further images of New York City appear beneath D’Souza’s narration: “America has a dream, from our forefathers [shot of George W], that together we must perfect liberty and America must grow, so liberty grows.”
Over ominous, electronic lounge beats with a world music vocal line (a continuation of what’s been playing throughout, with the overlay of what sounds–no accident– a bit like a Muezzin), D’Souza offers this final question to likely audiences and putative voters: “Which dream, will we cary into 2016?” Lingering, panning shots of the massive metal structure of East River bridges (Brooklyn Bridge? Williamsburg?) are a recurring motif in this last section, probably signifying passage and transition, but also because they’re visually interesting and “cool”.
So far, the manifest content is rather obvious: Obama is associated with black AFricans and the anti-colonial politics of his Kenyan father. His dream is thus not an American Dream, but an African one. (That much we know from D’Souza’s book, but the opening shot of burial and Obama’s words about “their struggle was my birthright,” rather nicely makes the point.)
America’s dream, on the contrary is, according to D’Souza, one in which Liberty can grow only by the growth of America, which, given his writings and speeches, I take to mean territorial as well as economic expansion. (D’Souza is a proud apologist for American imperialism, here conflated with English Imperialism by way of a weird graphic shout out to the Crown.) His assertion is one I haven’t yet encountered in the literature of political science, although it does have an intuitive, rhetorical appeal, whatever its historical or philosophical weaknesses.
The squabble of African-American young people over a Monopoly game is an extremely difficult visual to parse. On the one hand, we see grasping black hands and their owners coming to blows, an indifferent in itself, but odious in context; on the other, Monopoly is the Capitalist game par excellence, a childhood primer in reigning economic ideology (if not practice). The young players violent and uncooperative pursuit of getting, keeping and profiting has nothing to do with anti-colonial score settling or restraining the American colossus, and yet it can hardly be read as an endorsement of competition. Come to think of it, Monopoly is a vexed notion, vilified in political discourse and considered a problematic outcome within economic theory.
Then, there are all the glamour shots of New York City and Wall Street. Last I observed, Wall Street had become cultural shorthand for the financialization of our economy and the arrogant recklessness of greedy bankers. Wouldn’t “main street,” with its mix of mom-and-pop small, virtuous business have provided a better backdrop? And New York City, that liberal, cosmopolitan, multi-cultural and decadent global capital is positioned in this trailer as the repository of fundamental American values, urban expression of the dreams of our forefathers and besieged territory in the battle between rival visions of America and her place in the world.
When you consider that this bulging grab bag of ideas and images, tropes and cliches is pitched at audiences whose philosophical and economic exponents are more Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck than Alan Greenspan or Adam Smith, you begin to wonder just how it’s going to be read, processed and reconciled.
While the trailer is well cut, edited and sound-scaped, I’d say that its creative brief derives from a fundamental mis-identification of the likely audience. There is not nearly enough confirmation bias in this trailer and far too flattering and ambiguous a portrait of Barry O, whose words sound more statesmanlike and thoughtful than those uttered by his erstwhile analyst and character assassin.
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