Dreams From My Real Father, a direct-to-DVD “documentary” written and directed by Joel Gilbert, was to the Obama Birther movement what Dylan Avery’s Loose Change was to 9/11 Truthers. It was a slickly-polished piece of propaganda, designed to promote a fringe conspiracy theory through the incessant presentation of extensive misinformation. But whereas Loose Change inspired extensive, point-by-point debunkings, Gilbert’s film never attracted much attention. Not because it’s good mind you, but simply because it was just that transparently ridiculous.
Or like one man put it, “The very idea of the 9/11 Truth Movement, that the US was behind the attacks, is such utter nonsense that a film to debunk this theory is unnecessary.”
Ironically, that man was Joel Gilbert.
Dreams From My Real Father includes a litany of silly and conspiratorial allegations, but its central claim is that President Barack Obama is not actually the son of the man he says is his father, Barack Hussein Obama of Kenya. Rather, Gilbert proposes that Obama’s true biological father was the African American poet and one-time Communist activist Frank Marshall Davis. Davis was a known friend of Obama’s grandfather when Obama was young, but Gilbert says that Davis was much more, and he lays out his theory that Obama’s mother and grandparents engaged in a multi-decade ruse to cover up the truth about Obama’s paternity. And his primary evidence for this affair is a series of black-and-white erotic photos of a woman he claims are of a young Ann Dunham, and which he further claims were taken by Frank Marshall Davis in Davis’ home.
Lest there be any doubt as to Gilbert’s credibility on this point: the photos were not of Ann. Moreover, as will be shown below, Gilbert fully knew they weren’t Ann, and, in fact, knew they couldn’t be Ann, based on the very publications in which he admitted discovering the photos.
But despite all that absurdity, Gilbert managed one feat that made a debunking worthwhile: convincing some anonymous benefactor to spend millions of dollars to send millions of copies of this DVD to households in swing states, on the eve of the 2012 election. Because of this, it earned some limited notoriety as one of the worst smears of the 2012 campaign.
Background of the Rumor
Where did these improbable allegations come from? In the spring of 2008, a rumor began online about where Barack Obama was born, and starting in June 2008 it blossomed into a full-fledged fringe conspiracy theory. Over the next few months it spread and grew, and it also began inspiring spin-off conspiracy theories about his birth and citizenship. That Obama was born in Canada. That Obama was adopted. That Obama was an Indonesian citizen. That Obama lost his American citizenship as a child. That Obama was never a U.S. citizen to begin with.
Then, in September 2008, another new rumor was created at the right-wing website The Astute Bloggers. On September 1, site owner ‘Reliapundit’ complained about conspiracy theories that were circulating at the time regarding the parentage of Sarah Palin’s infant child, and in response posed the question “OBAMA’S TRUE PARENTAGE: IS BARACK OBAMA REALLY THE BIOLOGICAL SON OF FRANK MARSHALL DAVIS?”
In isolation the post would seem to be little more than a satirical response to the ugly and baseless allegations that were being thrown at Palin. But Reliapundit didn’t stop there. On September 13 he was arguing that Obama looks more like Davis than Obama Sr., and by September 30 he had assembled a list of questions that he suggested supported a secret father-son relationship between Davis and then-candidate Obama.
Nearly all of the elements in the September 30, 2008 post at The Astute Bloggers were included in Gilbert’s 2012 movie.
Then on October 22, 2008, Reliapundit resorted to full-on “slut-shaming,” publishing three nude photographs that he claimed were of Obama’s mother as a teenager, and suggesting that the photos were taken by Frank Marshall Davis. These photos (each bearing a watermark from “free-vintage-porn.com”), and additional photos of the same woman, were the cornerstone of Gilbert’s movie.
At the same time that The Astute Bloggers site was publishing erotic photos, established Obama conspiracy theorist Andy Martin also started promoting the idea that Obama was the biological son of Frank Marshall Davis. Martin’s rationale for this allegation was less developed than Reliapundit’s, but his notoriety in anti-Obama circles accomplished something that the posts at The Astute Bloggers hadn’t: the rumor began to spread. Within 48 hours, multiple anti-Obama blogs were republishing Martin’s claim, and it wasn’t long before they also began repeating the nude photo allegations.*
After 2008, the rumor mostly just floated around the internet, garnering a relatively insignificant following until Gilbert made it the focus of his movie in the summer of 2012.
Joel Gilbert Really Is Lying to You
Gilbert doesn’t stop with the paternity and nude photo allegations. He goes on to make other outrageous claims in the film, and his “evidence” for these claims is, in a word, nonexistent. He fabricates whole conversations from scratch, which he then pretends are historical recreations. He claims Obama’s grandfather was secretly a CIA agent purely because he took first-year French in college. He manufactures a elaborate scenario where Obama meets Bill Ayers a decade early and the Ayers family becomes his secret benefactors. He claims that Bill Ayers ghostwrote Dreams From My Father, and that Obama had a nose job to alter his appearance. None of this is supported with anything resembling credible evidence; indeed, the entire film is constructed from stock and pre-existing footage, and contains barely anything resembling actual investigative research. It sources absolutely nothing. And Gilbert defends all of these flights of fancy as being “re-creations of probable events, and speculation.”**
And those are just the ridiculous claims Gilbert makes in the movie itself. On the film’s website, and in interviews, he advanced such silliness as claiming that Obama photoshopped his mother over Davis in his childhood photos and that Obama’s ring bears a Muslim inscription. He also edited his website in response to this debunking, adding new lies to the old ones.
Moreover, Gilbert’s previous two direct-to-DVD films were similar “documentaries”, where he claimed (through the use of publicly-available footage, celebrity-impersonator narrators, and a complete disregard for historical accuracy, just as in his Obama film) to have uncovered new evidence that would rewrite the history of famous individuals, namely that Paul McCartney has been dead since 1966, and that Elvis was still alive. I addressed Gilbert’s conspiracism and dishonesty surrounding these films in an article for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s Skeptical Briefs quarterly.
Yet, through the aid of his anonymous benefactor, Gilbert was able to mail millions of free DVDs to households in swing states, putting this fringe production in the hands of millions of unsuspecting voters. Moreover, to this date, Gilbert has refused to disclose who funded this effort. He has only admitted that he himself did not cover that million-dollar expense. When hit with an FEC complaint for failing to disclose the financier of this independent campaign expenditure, Gilbert’s defense was that mailing millions of free Obama-conspiracy-laden DVDs to swing states was merely marketing his work as a “journalist.”
This debunking of Dreams From My Real Father originally ran in September and October 2012, and was not only covered by the Orlando Sentinel, but my findings were referenced on Obama’s own campaign website.
It’s not a point-by-point debunking either; the film is far too full of bulls**t to comprehensively disassemble in anything short of a treatise. Instead, it tackles several aspects of Gilbert and his film, showing how Dreams From My Real Father is replete with fictions and lies, how Joel Gilbert is a charlatan and a fabulist, and how anyone who chooses to trust him has some depressingly low standards for what they’ll believe.
- Joel Gilbert vs. The Complete Exotique – A video demonstration of Gilbert’s alleged “Ann Dunham” photos, appearing the magazine Exotique in 1958, two years before the real Ann moved to Hawaii, and when Ann was only 15 years old.
- Interview with Davis Homeowner – Gilbert claimed in multiple interviews that he visited the Hawaii home of Frank Marshall Davis, and that it matched the room seen in the Exotique photos. But he only ever said that; since 2012, he’s never produced any evidence from this trip supporting those claims. Moreover, I personally spoke with the owner of Frank Marshall Davis’ house, who completely repudiated everything Gilbert claimed about his home.
*Right-wing blogger Pamela Geller made a seemingly unrelated post on October 24 that included an even more outrageous theory about Obama’s paternity: that he was actually the secret, out-of-wedlock son of civil rights activist Malcolm X. Whereas Martin and Reliapundit at least had the benefit of young Obama having known Davis, Geller’s post doesn’t expend much effort explaining how Obama’s mother in Hawaii could have ever even met the New York-based Malcolm X.
**After the above debunking was originally published online, Gilbert subsequently edited his film’s disclaimer to remove the word “speculation.”
– Loren Collins is an Atlanta attorney and the author of Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation.