‘Documentary’ Sheds Disturbing Light on Racial Perceptions of Obama

The Editorial Board

You didn’t watch Dreams From My Real Father: A Story of Reds and Deception so much as it washed over you in a wave of disbelief. A pseudo-documentary purporting to expose the “true origin of Obama’s life and politics,” Dreams From My Real Father tells the story of how President Obama’s father was a card-carrying member of Communist Party USA — not a goat herder from Kenya who came to America in search of an education.

The film, copies of which have recently filled many of the OCMR’s mailboxes and trash bins, contains some familiar far-right tropes from the last few years: Obama’s friendship with Bill Ayers, his ties to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, his hidden socialist and Islamic beliefs. But it soon veers into previously uncharted territories of paranoid delusion, claiming that his real father was Frank Marshall Davis, a prominent Chicago Marxist, who indoctrinated his young son Barack in his radical ideology. Far from being isolated to Oberlin, the film is making its rounds through the swing states: According to The Daily Beast, more than a million copies have been mailed to voters in Ohio, 100,000 have been sent to New Hampshire, and between 80,000 and 100,000 made their way to voters in Nevada. Alabama GOP Chair Bill Armistead recently publically recommended the movie, saying, “I’ve seen it. I verified that it is factual, all of it.” As implausible as it seems, Dreams From My Real Father has somehow found a not-insignificant audience.

While its substantive content can be laughed away, the film is deeply troubling in what it tells us about the state of race relations in the 21st-century United States. Its argument for Davis as Obama’s father isn’t based in legal records or genealogical documentation, or anything approaching concrete evidence. What makes Gilbert so sure of Obama’s parentage? A feature-by-feature examination of the two men’s faces. No, really.

Obama and Davis are brought up side-by-side on the screen, and the narrator proceeds to analyze every physical feature — from thick lips to a deep voice. It plays to the basest racial stereotypes, ones with dark histories in our country. At one point, socialism is described as a plot to “neuter the white man,” a rather explicit identification of the film’s audience: insecure white Americans terrified about a nation evolving all around them. The fact that Davis was an avid jazz listener is featured on his figurative rap sheet alongside association with communist ideology.

As much as we desperately wanted to deny it after the country put a black man in the White House in 2008, racism is still a fact of American life. In a study published in the New York Times this June, an analysis of Google searches estimated that President Obama lost at least three to five percentage points nationally in 2008 because of “racial animus.” 41 percent of Democratic voters in West Virginia’s May 8 primary election rejected Obama for a (white) incarcerated felon named Keith Judd. And almost four years into his presidency, the gauntlet of his reelection campaign has revealed how far we still are from a post-racial society.

Obama has received more vitriol than any politician in our lifetime — not simply criticism of policy, but a seemingly visceral disgust. According to a 2010 Harris Poll, 24 percent of Republicans polled thought the man may be the Antichrist. To be sure, the President has successfully passed a few historically unprecedented measures, like comprehensive health care reform, but the volume — and, more importantly, the nature — of the attacks on Obama over the past four years point to something larger. There’s no escaping the fact that race is an all-too-prominent factor in this election, just as it was in ’08. The GOP (or more accurately, the wingnuts who have seized ideological control of the GOP) looks at Obama with an inescapable sense of otherness. Here is a black man in the highest position of authority in an increasingly chaotic and confusing environment that shows no signs of slowing down. Obviously there can be no excuse for racism — the discourse that dominates the political right is reprehensible, hateful and irresponsible. But the fact remains that it exists, and only threatens to get louder if Obama is reelected. Race relations, it turns out, are still thornier than many progressives last election cycle had hoped.