The Lionsgate docudrama begins with a musing on what might have happened if George Washington had been killed during the Revolutionary War, leading to the erasure of Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty and other icons of Americana.
Viewers expecting an alternate history will be disappointed, since the film moves beyond that to instead look at alternate perspectives on the America that was and is. Again narrating and appearing on-camera, D’Souza talks about his past as an immigrant from India and his love for his adopted homeland.
Mixed in with these personal revelations are dramatized events from U.S. history, featuring such luminaries as Alexis de Tocqueville, a French chronicler of the infant America; Abraham Lincoln; social reformer, orator and writer Frederick Douglass; and hair-care entrepreneur and civil-rights activist Madam C.J. Walker.
D’Souza also talks to people representing ideas on the opposite end of the political spectrum from him, including linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and former college professor Ward Churchill.
D’Souza enumerates their criticisms of the United States, such as slavery, territorial disputes with Mexico and the treatment of Native Americans. Accepting those criticisms, he then goes on to point out individuals, facts and incidents that refute the idea that American is inherently evil–in particular the viewpoints expressed in the late Howard Zinn’s popular book, A People’s History of the United States.
The result has generated mixed reviews.
Writing in the conservative National Review, national-affairs correspondent John Fund says, “Like its subject, ‘America’ isn’t perfect and its arguments aren’t always sophisticated,” but calls it “a celebration of its title subject” and worthy Fourth-of-July weekend viewing (having premiered July 30 in Los Angeles, the film hits nationwide on Wednesday, July 2).
Mainstream movie critics are divided over whether the production is “inept” (from TheWrap); “handsome,” “well-lit” and “well-edited” (from The Daily Beast) or just “more of a bullet-point presentation than an actual film” (Indiewire).
What these three reviewers do agree on is that they don’t like it. One of the main objections seems to be that D’Souza downplays the worst excesses of slavery, what happened to the Native Americans, etc., in favor of feel-good stories and qualifiers (like, there were Irish indentured servants as well as slaves, there were black slave owners, and Native Americans warred with each other over land before Europeans ever arrived).
Of course, none of these stories negates the horrors and injustices of the past, but that’s not D’Souza’s point. Instead, he’s offering a different context in which to view them, and he’s done it before.
In 2016, he put forward a premise that Barack Obama’s personal history and education gave him an anti-colonial viewpoint more connected to his absent Kenyan-born father than to the experience of most African-Americans, and then presented arguments meant to bolster that conclusion.
In America, D’Souza talks about the “conquest ethic,” a universal human idea that the strong conquer the weak and then take what they have, without remorse. While D’Souza acknowledges America was founded under the conquest ethic and has, like nations throughout all history, fallen prey to it at times, the stories presented in the movie are meant to illustrate how the nation has resisted and transcended that ethic.
“America was birthed, unfortunately, in the conquest ethic,” director John Sullivan, who also collaborated with D’Souza on “2016,” tells Breitbart News, “but it was the first to crawl its way out of that.”
In America, D’Souza is not trying to absolve the country of its sins but rather explain how it has attempted, and is still attempting, to redeem itself from them. But, as the reviews show, not everyone will either catch that nuance or agree with it if they do.
Explains Sullivan, “The reason why Dinesh had most of these people come on is because he had a previous relationship with them. He’d either debated them earlier or talked to them. Everybody knew who we were; there wasn’t any hiding of it or anything of that nature.
“They knew exactly who Dinesh was. We said, ‘We’re going to let you speak your point of view.’ They agreed. They knew what they were signing up for. … It is interesting that we got many of these people to sit down and give us their full-throated criticism of America.”
Another section of the movie deals with radical community organizer Saul Alinsky, author of the influential 1971 book,Rules for Radicals.
Sullivan says some of the Alinsky clips will be new even to most who have studied him.
“We’ve got footage in there that most people had never, ever seen,” says Sullivan. “They’re from a couple of Canadian documentaries we’ve been able to dig up.”
Ironically, Alinsky is probably better known today in conservative circles than most liberal ones, since connections have been drawn between his ideas and methods and those of President Obama.
While the claim could be made that this notion is the result of speculation, as “America” illustrates in a dramatized segment, the young Hillary Rodham definitely knew of Alinsky — and had met the 60-year-old during a Methodist Church outing as a teen. It also discusses the senior thesis she wrote about him as a 21-year-old Wellesley College student, which was kept locked away during the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton.
“This will raise, for some people, questions,” says Sullivan, “as to who she really is and what her connection is, and if she’s going to be a compromiser, along the lines of Bill, or is she going to be more ideological along the lines of Barack?
“That’s the big question people people will have to see in the film and decide for themselves.”
If moviegoers are curious, this NBC News story from 2007 goes into some detail on the thesis; or, you can read it in its entirety here.
America also includes news about D’Souza himself. In May, he struck a deal and pled guilty to a charge that he used straw donors to make $20,000 in illegal campaign contributions to GOP candidate Wendy Long in 2012.
According to a May 20th story in Politico, the “unexpected guilty plea” came on the same day D’Souza’s trial was set to begin in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
This makes D’Souza a convicted felon, depriving the political commentator of his ability to vote in the future, and he could spend from 10 to 16 months in jail. The segment on the case in America doesn’t proclaim D’Souza’s innocence–in the narration, he says that he is “not above the law”–but hints he may have been singled out for prosecution without specific evidence.
And none will be forthcoming, at least in “America.” Sullivan says the resolution of the case came about late in the production of the film. So the segment is brief and light on detail.
“We felt like,” says Sullivan, “if we were to ignore it, it would be kind of odd. At the same time, it fit thematically with what was happening with that part of the movie. We finished the movie before the plea deal. We might have changed it, but given that the movie was pretty much done, edited, so there wasn’t much we could change that way.”
According to Sullivan, there won’t be any additional material on D’Souza’s legal troubles in the DVD release, but there will be additional footage of the Churchill interview.
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