What the Obamas Fear: The Rest of Us


Much has been made of the Netflix peri-apocalyptic yawner, Leave the World Behind, directed by Sam Esmail and produced by Michelle and Barack Obama. Most reviews focus on the supposedly contentious racial attitudes expressed in the film, the bizarre collapsing-world images, and the incomprehensible ending.

But all of the focus on race, crashing planes, and errant flamingos misses the crux of Leave the World Behind: a fascinating peek into the psyches of its producers and their socio-political milieu. 

In this reading, the film is a political allegory that inadvertently reveals the gaping chasm between the existential concerns of almost everyone in the world, and the deepest fears of our global ruling elites.

I will not repeat the plot of the movie, which is summarized elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it involves a mega-rich black family and an upper-middle-class white family who come together in an apocalyptic scenario – No Internet or cell phone service! Attacking Teslas! Herds of menacing deer! – and try to figure out what’s going on. 

Racial Tensions Resolve Quickly

If you’re the type of person who spends weekends sipping expensive red wine out of giant crystal goblets beside the heated pool of a modernist monstrosity in the Hamptons, you might identify with this interpretation of the film, provided by MSNBC:

The film argues that even in periods of hostility, there are still opportunities for cooperation and even common ground, however painfully and shakily they come about. The love and trust might not come easily, but the possibility is there, somewhere.

This rosy summary, one surmises, stems from the fact that various members of the socioeconomically and politically indistinguishable black and white families start out feeling hostile toward one another, yet end up literally holding hands, as they watch nuclear bombs explode over Manhattan.

Superficially, the kumbaya angle might make a bit more sense than claims that the movie is racist against white people, because the black characters say you can’t trust whites, and the white characters are portrayed as stupidly racist. But neither interpretation gets at the film’s core ideology, which is all about class.

The Real Danger is Dumb People Who Will Vote for Trump a Second Time

The climax comes in the last quarter of the film, after the laughably stereotypical racial tensions are all but resolved. Thus, it is in a post-racial oddly utopian bubble that the morality play’s dire warnings are mournfully doled out by a gorgeous, sophisticated, soft-spoken, and supremely self-righteous Barack Obama stand-in (the otherwise fantastic actor Mahershala Ali, completely wasted in the single-note earnestness of this role). I can’t even remember the character’s name in the movie, because it really doesn’t matter. 

“Nothing frightens me more than a person unwilling to learn, even at their own expense,” Obama/Ali intones to his equally gorgeous and privileged white counterpart, Julia Roberts. “That’s a darkness I will never understand.” Julia, at this point, is completely in thrall to her dark, handsome companion’s erudite prognostications and metrosexual charm.

Who might he be referring to? Ostensibly, as he explains, it is his very wealthy, very powerful brokerage (or accounting, or whatever) clients who keep investing in bad stocks. 

So it’s the ultra-rich investors who are unwilling to learn?

Most definitely not.

Lest we dare to imagine that perhaps this privileged member of the ruling elites is leveling criticism at his own class, he makes it very clear that, actually, there is no such thing as ruling elites, let alone an “evil cabal” that supposedly runs the world. That’s all just a conspiracy theory propagated by ignorant peasants who do not have access to super-wealthy and powerful clients in the military-industrial complex. Insiders, like Obama/Ali, who spend weekends whooping it up with billionaire defense contractors, know that “a conspiracy theory about a shadowy group of people running the world is far too lazy of an explanation.”

You hear that – all you lazy people of the world, whose wealth and standard of living have been declining at an alarmingly accelerated rate, while the Davos crowd centralizes more and more power in fewer and fewer hands? You’re just imagining that the billionaires are actively orchestrating global events and policies to completely disenfranchise you.

“The truth,” according to Obama/Ali “is much scarier.” You see, you dumb teeming masses yearning for a modicum of dignity and happiness, “No one is in control. No one is pulling the strings.”

Thus, when he bemoans the “darkness” of those “unwilling to learn,” the moralizer-in-chief does not in any way, shape, or form mean the people who control global finance, industry, media, resources, communications, medicine, and so on.

Who he means is Danny.

Danny is the only intentionally unlikable character in Leave the World Behind and the only working class one. He is such a ridiculous stereotype of how Democrats think a Trump voter looks, talks, and behaves, that you just have to laugh. How he found his way to Long Island, with his belligerent American flag, rifle, and ratty Cowboys cap, is a mystery never addressed. 

The important point about Danny is that he is a survivalist, and thus has medicine that might help one of the white kids who was bitten by an evil bug out in dangerous nature. Nature in the film is turning ever more hostile as the apocalypse looms. I’m pretty sure the dreaded bug is both a mutant tic and a metaphor for SARS-CoV-2.

But Danny doesn’t really want to give his precious medicine to the entitled rich assholes who pull up on his lawn demanding his help.

After guns are pulled, tears are shed, paternal instincts are invoked, and money changes hands, Danny reluctantly shells over some pills and sits back with his weapon in front of his flag.

The next scene – the most simultaneously pivotal and boring in the entire movie – occurs in the inside of Obama/Ali’s car, as it leaves Danny’s house, with the white father and son as passengers. The camera focuses on Danny’s scruffy gun-toting image framed in the driver’s window, then shifts the focus to the driver’s flawless face.

This is when Obama/Ali tells the white guys, and the audience, what’s really going on.

Hilariously, he refers again to his defense contractor billionaire buddy: “Because my primary client works in the defense sector, I spend a lot of time studying the cost-benefit analysis of military campaigns,” he soberly explains. Wow. Sounds super serious, yet utterly absurd at the same time.

“There was one program in particular that terrified my client the most. A simple three-stage maneuver that could topple a country’s government from within,” he continues.

Briefly, as he explains it, the three stages are:

  1. Isolation: Disable the target’s communication and transportation. 
  2. Synchronized chaos: Terrorize them with covert attacks and misinformation.
  3. Civil War: Without a clear enemy or motive, people will start turning on each other.

If it sounds like a somewhat unlikely leap from the terror of covert attacks and misinformation to civil war, Obama/Ali has a great explanation for that, too: “If the target nation was dysfunctional enough, it would, in essence, do the work for you.”

That, dear audience, is it in a nutshell. The apocalypse will come, according to our totally-not-in-control ruling class, when dumbass rednecks fail to learn from their self-defeating mistakes (like voting for Trump a second time), causing our country to be so dysfunctional that any random enemy (the film suggests Iran, China, Russia, North Korea) or a combo thereof, can bombard us with misinformation, thus “overwhelming our defense capabilities,” leaving our weapons systems “vulnerable to extremists in our own military,” resulting in the inevitable self-destruction of Civil War.

They can’t really think that, can they?

Yes, they can. For those of us who stuck around until the last painful moments of Leave the World Behind, the moral is cleverly reinforced in a warning message, and a barely disguised January 6th reference, that flashes on a TV screen: “WHITE HOUSE AND MAJOR CITIES UNDER ATTACK BY ROGUE ARMED FORCES. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.”

What the Rest of Us Fear

Aside from the preposterous posturings of the film’s surrogate Obama posse, I was most perplexed by the choice of director for Leave the World Behind – Sam Esmail.

In 2015, when Obama was still President, Esmail created Mr. Robot, one of my all-time favorite streaming binges.

The series depicts a near-future in which a group of idealistic hackers try to take down E-Corp, nicknamed “Evil Corp” – a global corporation and its owners, who basically control everything. The very real and very scary evil cabal in Mr. Robot consists of Chinese, European, and American gazillionaires, intent on monopolizing the world’s physical resources and digital infrastructure. Ultimately, the hackers’ attacks fail to liberate the commonfolk and merely lead to chaos and further societal disintegration. 

It’s a wonderfully dark and true depiction of what I would guess a large portion of the world’s population fears, even now, after one Trump and one Biden administration.

But the only hint of Esmail’s former truth-to-power, David v. Goliath ethos are some E-Corp logos gleefully discovered in the current film by his staunchest fans.

Is it mere irony that Esmail has now directed a movie portraying the loathing of our upper echelons for the lowly mortals he once championed? Or is it a clever ploy by those echelons – one I’ve noticed in other contexts as well – of corralling a potential dissident over to the establishment’s side?

Either way, Leave the World Behind is a disappointment on every level, except for what it unconsciously reveals.

  • Debbie Lerman, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, has a degree in English from Harvard. She is a retired science writer and a practicing artist in Philadelphia, PA.

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