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‘America’ In Theatres Today

By Jonathan Hickman for the Times-Herald

Can you trust the history books? Dinesh D’Souza cautions and beckons you to dig deeper. But exactly what are the “history” books he’s talking about?

“America” is the follow-up to author and now filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza’s 2012 documentary blockbuster “2016: Obama’s America.” I call that film a blockbuster because it sits right behind “Fahrenheit 9/11” on the list of most profitable political documentaries of all time with some $33.4 million in domestic box office sales. This distinction is quite a feat and has made D’Souza a historical footnote in cinematic history. Whether he can recapture the conservative fervor that made him a rock star is doubtful this time around. And the pity is that where “2016” was a roughly shot and edited film that, as I pointed out in my previous review, suffering a bit from technical problems, “America” is a handsomely made picture that one-ups Michael Moore and his team while promoting a Right leaning view of history.

Now, the tease from the trailers for “America” is that the film will give us a view of the country as though it never existed. However, this tease and tagline are not what “America” is about. Rather, after introducing the provocative alternate history idea, D’Souza decides to refute the Left’s historical narrative. And this means he bashes the late Howard Zinn, who wrote “A People’s History of the United States.” Ironically, in presenting the argument against Zinn and others by attacking what D’Souza terms “indictments” of America, he takes a page directly out of the Zinn playbook. “America” asks one very important question: what’s been left out of the history books?

Much of the film utilizes dramatic reenactments some of which hint at the tease promised in the film's trailer. D'Souza narrates as actor portrayals handsomely assist the story-telling. We see Washington fall on the battlefield in "America's" opening sequence and many national landmarks appear to disintegrate from view. But, perhaps, the most interesting and moving part of D'Souza's documentary is when he presents historical anecdotes. We get the story of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker, who despite being black, built an empire based on a line of hair care products. And he tells us that in the South there were black slave owners and even black plantation owners. The effect may cause readers to seek out more information and more than one viewer will likely do some post-viewing research.

D'Souza relies heavily on something he sometime calls the "conquest epic" and other times referring to it as "ethic." One part of this idea is that entrepreneurship is counter to the conquest narrative in that instead of taking things by force, entrepreneurship is more democratic--anyone can be an entrepreneur. And unique to the idea of America is that anyone means everyone.

While D'Souza's narrative is well told it is ultimately a bit tainted. Part of his response to the Zinn historical perspective is an attack on the messengers. This leads us to Saul Alinsky linking him to Hillary Clinton and again rehashing Obama's connection to former Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers. Buried in this discussion is mention of D'Souza's own troubles with the law. He has recently pleaded guilty to campaign finance fraud and reportedly faces between 10 and 16 months in prison. Therefore, while presenting his response to those he maintains pervert history, it is impossible to divorce from the presentation D'Souza's motivations and the lens through which he sees the world. Can we believe the D'Souza narrative?

In covering so much ground D'Souza unfortunately waters down his argument. The film feels like a very abridged almost "Cliff's Notes" presentation lacking the in depth analysis necessary to fully appreciate his position. In fact, it plays like a feature length trailer for an intriguing television series. And in adopting the Michael Moore or Robert Greenwald approach to modern documentary filmmaking, D'Souza gives us one side of the debate. He does make an effort to present the opposing view but in an extremely limited fashion. For example, D'Souza sits down with the controversial Ward Churchill, whose views are hardly mainstream. In the brief interview, Churchill puffs away on a cigarette while discussing his awful 9/11 comments and philosophy. The image of the "smoking man" continues as dramatic reenactments feature an actor playing community organizer and writer Saul Alinsky. The effort is to make such figures looks mysterious and dangerous, which taken in a vacuum they very well may be. The reality is that the United States we live in is thankfully a little more balanced. And controversial ideas and positions are protected.

D'Souza powerfully makes the point that we may be the only country in the world to fight a civil war to end slavery. But in pointing out the escape of America from its dark history, D'Souza comes close to apologizing and even justifying the mistakes of the past. It is a fine a line he walks, and his detractors and critics will be quick to say that D'Souza is taking the position that slavery wasn't so bad, after all. But that isn't the case, what D'Souza is likely saying is that it is okay to love your country, our country in particular, warts and all.