The second of two Barack Obama biopics this year, Barry is a solid enough piece of work that captures Obama as a young man in college, straining to find his way and place in life. Directed by Vikram Gandhi and starring Devon Terrell as the outgoing President, the film is based on excerpts from Obama’s biography, Dreams of My Father, but it avoids presenting a rote story of Obama’s rise, rather focusing on a very specific section of his life (his college years in New York. By and large, biopics do tend to be more successful when focusing on a specific period of their subjects’ lives rather than a larger arc, avoiding some of the traditional schematic pitfalls and allowing the filmmakers to concentrate on making a focused character study instead.
The main thematic point of focus that Gandhi and screenwriter Adam Mansbach align the film with is Obama’s self-awareness and conscious grappling with his own mixed-race identity. This is most apparent in his relationship with two other students at college; his girlfriend Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy), and local New Yorker PJ (Jason Mitchell). Charlotte is a fictional concoction, a well-heeled white woman who comes from an absurdly privileged background, but with an interest in activist politics, whilst PJ is from the New York projects, disadvantaged economically but intelligent and hard-working, who has made his way into college on a business degree with the sole aim of making money and getting out of poverty.
Vikram Gandhi uses these characters as a way of depicting the young Obama’s ability to transcend both the spheres of upper-class white America and street-level black America without ever truly feeling at home in both. Despite the best intentions of Charlotte’s parents—who, we gather, played roles as activists/lawyers during the Civil Rights era—they are still subliminally prejudiced and blinded by their privileged status in life, and that has rubbed off on Charlotte, whilst the young Obama’s well-travelled upbringing (Indonesia, Hawaii, Kenya) means he isn’t quite streetwise enough to fit into PJ’s world of run-down government housing and police surveillance. Full credit to all the young actors here, especially Devon Terrell as Obama, who navigates the complexity of this material with the required nuance and subtlety, whilst simultaneously mimicking the outgoing President’s distinctively pleasing speech patterns.
Unfortunately, Barry doesn’t always succeed in regards to discussing the coming-of-age experience of a young mixed race man in America, occasionally really pressing its points right up to your nose so as to make sure they’re clear. There are two scenes with a racist campus security officer that feel particularly superfluous and designed more for generating outrage, rather than the intelligence with which the film otherwise maintains itself (although I don’t doubt that the scenes are based in reality, it’s simply that they don’t function well with the more introspective nature of the rest of the film). And although Vikram Gandhi handles the material fine, Barry isn’t a particularly inspiring film visually. It’s no surprise the film has ended up being distributed by Netflix rather than through the cinemas, as it has a particularly televisual quality.
Yet, this is still a fine work, and absolutely worth catching up with, either via streaming or other services. In a year in which black or PoC American cinema has been particularly vocal and confident (Moonlight, 13th, and Lemonade to name just three), particularly given the massive step back America is about to take, Barry is a fine addition to the ranks, an engaging document of growing up as an outsider in a country that’s becoming increasingly suspicious of outsiders.