Where would the world be without America? That is the question America, the new documentary by Dinesh D’Souza, asks. It’s a question calculated to evoke a fundamental emotional response. The film, which opens in theaters on Independence Day, cuts straight to the chase, interviewing people who are frustrated with the United States: Native Americans who are still upset that we own the Black Hills; Hispanics who believe Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California should be part of Mexico; hard-eyed college professors who tell the camera the United States is an imperialist, colonial power.
D’Souza tells us many people do not want the United States to exist, and talks about the narrative of shame: the idea that America is not actually a great nation because it massacred Native Americans, enslaved Africans, bombed Vietnam, and invaded Mexico. America tells us these charges need to be answered because the people who bring them forward are asking for justice. But America’s defense is uneven. Sometimes its arguments have the ring of truth, other times they appeal only to unreflecting patriots.
D’Souza’s basic argument is that while the conquering mindset that led to the United States’ ills is universal, the country’s particular ethos is both unique and good. Every nation, D’Souza says, conquered its neighbors and stole their possessions. When the U.S. government took large swaths of land from the Sioux, for instance, its actions were no different than what the Sioux had done not long before, taking those same lands from other tribes. What makes the United States different, the film says, is that the country also ended slavery, made reparations to the Sioux, and in general championed industry and trade rather than conquest and theft.
Unfortunately, this approach sometimes falls flat in its presentation. At other key points in the film, America sidesteps the actual issues in favor of attacking those who address them. While it is no doubt good to call out Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for its flaws, destroying Zinn’s reputation will not resuscitate the skeletons in America’s closet.
America is less about responding to the charges themselves and more about responding to the people who make them to advance their own agenda. Perhaps D’Souza’s source for the movie (his book, America: Imagine a World Without Her) is more substantive, but where the film really shines is not in its arguments but in the forgotten relics of the past that it unearths. The few forgotten tidbits of history that America shows (much of the film includes historical reenactments) are gems that make it worthwhile watching, despite its occasional flaws.