‘Barry’ Review: Obama’s College Years Drama Surprises

     December 14, 2016

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[This is a re-post of my Barry review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, December 16th.]

2016 has already given us our first feature film about America’s sitting president, the Barack Obama and Michelle Obama love story Southside with You, and now arrives our second, Barry. Unlike Southside with You, which was based very much in fact and attempted to chronicle the future First Couple’s first date, Barry is the kind of film in which you quickly accept the protagonist as a character, not a full-on impression of a famous person. Devon Terrell gives a truly star-making performance as the future president in a film that, as crafted by filmmaker Vikram Gandhi, is much more about race and identity in America than what our nation’s first African-American president did when he was in college. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent film that also happens to be mighty entertaining.

Barry opens in August 1981 with the titular protagonist smoking a cigarette on a plane, reading a letter from his estranged father. He soon lands in New York City, where he begins his junior year at Columbia University. It’s made clear right up front that Barry doesn’t belong, as he goes straight from the airport to the university late at night to take in the sights, where he’s promptly approached by a white security guard who forces him to leave given that he doesn’t have proper student identification. Terrell—who was the lead in 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen‘s HBO series Codes of Conduct before the network passed on the pilot—is incredible in the lead role here, evoking the intonation and spirit of Barack Obama without the performance coming off as a simple impersonation. You really feel like Barry is at once a young Barack Obama and entirely his own character.

Barry soon begins dating a white woman from his political science class, played by The Witch standout Anya Taylor-Joy with a terrific blend of smarts and naiveté. As the film progresses, Barry tries to navigate a slew of different social settings, trying to find his “scene”. He doesn’t quite fit in at the fraternity party down the street. He doesn’t quite fit in on the basketball court with other local young black men. He doesn’t fit in at a party in the Harlem projects.

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Image via Netflix

Indeed, this is the central theme of Barry—who is Barry and where does he belong? When asked where he’s from, Barry always has to give a long answer saying he was born in Hawaii, lived in Indonesia for a bit, dad’s from Kenya, etc. It’s not as simple as “I’m from Kansas,” and as someone who’s already feeling like an outsider given his mixed race, this lack of a true “home” heritage leaves Barry feeling apprehensive in many social settings.

However, Barry does a terrific job of showcasing Obama’s knack for making people feel comfortable no matter the circumstances. When Barry goes out to dinner with his girlfriend’s white, liberal, and privileged parents, he puts them at ease by citing the academics of his father. He’s a man who has the ability to navigate various social settings, but what Barry makes clear is that in these early years, that doesn’t always mean he’s comfortable.

The word “Obama” is never mentioned in the film, and while all the specifics match up and Ashley Judd plays his mother, Gandhi makes it tremendously easy to forget that we’re watching a biopic, opting instead to let the audience become immersed in Barry’s world. It’s a brilliant choice that alleviates a lot of the pressure of wondering “Did this actually happen?”, as the audience is simply left to take in the story at hand, which is much more of a portrait than a photograph.

Race, obviously, plays a major role in Barry, and early in the film he and a fellow classmate get into a discussion on moral authority in which the other student (white) asks, “Why does everything always have to be about slavery?” The question clearly irks Barry, but he moves on, and throughout the course of the film Gandhi seems to be attempting to answer that very question.

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Image via Netflix

Adam Mansbach’s screenplay is narratively interesting and always compelling, which is especially impressive given that there’s no central plot device to speak of. The film isn’t leading up to one big plot point, and there’s no huge twist that upends the characters. We simply see Barry, fresh off the plane and in the big city, slowly come to understand his surroundings and how race plays a key role in how Americans interact with one another—unspoken or not. As evidenced by his girlfriend’s obliviousness, white people often aren’t aware of the pressure, the strains, the judgment that is bestowed upon people of color simply for walking down the street, and Gandhi does a terrific job of conveying this without having the film come off as a trite and judgmental “White People Just Don’t Understand” film. There’s much more nuance involved, and it’s a testament to the movie’s performances that this tone is conveyed throughout.

Indeed, in addition to Terrell and Taylor-Joy, Straight Outta Compton actor Jason Mitchell proves he was no one-hit-wonder with a fantastic turn as a fellow Columbia student who was raised in the projects. Avi Nash, who plays Saleem, the only person he knows in New York when he arrives, also turns in a swell performance that expands the film beyond a simple “white and black” dynamic.

Working with cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra, Gandhi crafts a frame that is elegant and warm, which further serves the compelling nature of the narrative. This may be a film about serious issues, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be entertaining. That’s one of Barry’s bright spots, in fact. That it manages to be a thought-provoking meditation on race in America (not to mention an absent father story) while also proving to be heavily entertaining—and that’s even before you factor in that this is also the story of our nation’s first non-white president.

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Image via Netflix

When I sat down to watch Southside with You earlier this year, I went in asking one question: Why does this film exist? Obama is a popular president, but there’s nothing particularly noteworthy or controversial about his past that warrants a feature film. So what could possibly be of value in Southside with You? After watching the film, I understood that it’s not necessarily that there’s one specific story to be told about Barack Obama. It’s that he is the very first African-American citizen to ever be elected to our nation’s highest office. With that, he brings along an entirely different background and perspective than any other president in history, and understanding the road that led him to the White House is a worthwhile endeavor.

I’m convinced Barry would work nearly just as well if it wasn’t even about Barack Obama, which is a testament to the strength of the script and Gandhi’s filmmaking. But it is about Obama, and that not only makes it a very good film, it makes it a noteworthy one. It has something to say about how we approach race in this country, and how our history with race has (or hasn’t) evolved over the last few decades. There’s progress to be made that’s for sure, but whether you’re a fan of Barack Obama as a president or not, it can’t be denied that his presidency is an achievement of great historical importance. And with Barry, we come away with a better understanding not just of the forces that shaped the man Barack Obama became, but the real world in which we live that informs so many of us, Americans all.

Rating: B+

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