Dinesh D'Souza wears many hats: Author, apologist, debater, public intellectual, college president. With 2016:Obama's America, the former Reagan staffer and current president of The King's College in New York City adds "documentary filmmaker" to the list. Make that blockbuster documentary filmmaker.
The film, a conservative political documentary which explores Barack Obama's past and speculates about what his second term in office would mean for the United States, has become a surprise breakout at the box office, earning $28 million so far. That total makes it the highest grossing conservative documentary of all time, the second most successful political documentary of all time (behind Michael Moore's 2004 film, Fahrenheit 9/11), and No. 6 on the list of all documentaries. Industry insiders suggest that the film, made for $2.5 million, will likely end its run with a box office total of more than $35 million, easily making it 2012's highest grossing nonfiction film.
The film premiered on one screen in Houston on July 13, and has since expanded to 2,017 theaters, due to better-than-expected per theater averages and high audience demand. Ticket demand was so high in Newport Beach, Calif. that the film was moved into the 1,000-seat "Big Newport" theater, which boasts the largest screen on the West Coast.
What's behind the film's success? Who are the audiences flocking to see it? Political scientists and industry analysts (not to mention the Obama and Romney campaign teams) are doubtless scrambling to figure these questions out. In my view, the film's appeal, and its likely strong word of mouth buzz, lies in the fact that it presents an argument against President Obama that we haven't seen before. There is new information here about Obama's personal history—or at least information that is new to most people because, unsurprisingly, it has not been highlighted by the left-leaning media. More on that later.
One might question the wisdom of a college president getting into the business of politically partisan filmmaking. As an employee at a Christian college myself (at Biola University), I wince thinking about what students, faculty and staff at King's might think about their leader issuing so public a polemic against President Obama—especially if they disagree with the politics of D'Souza, but even if they don't. With this film, D'Souza positions himself—and by association, his college—firmly in the political fray of the 2012 election season. 2016 may well prove to be one of the most important pieces of media in this election, especially if Obama loses. If that happens, one wonders if D'Souza would leave King's for a position in the Romney administration. He may, in fact, be a better fit there.
Still, 2016: Obama's America must be evaluated on its own terms. The film, co-directed by John Sullivan and D'Souza and based on material from D'Souza's books about Obama (Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream and The Roots of Obama's Rage), follows the tried-and-true formula of the partisan political documentary, as perfected by the likes of Al Gore and Michael Moore. Here, D'Souza fashions himself as a sort of conservative version of Moore—personalizing the film and making it a "journalistic fact-finding mission" as D'Souza himself crisscrosses the globe in search of answers about what drives Obama and where his ideological heart might lie.