Let’s face it, if you’ve held or have run for a major political office, someone is going to make a movie about you. Whether for good (“Lincoln”) or bad (“Game Change”) reasons, cinema and television is obsessed with the lives of politicians. It’s therefore fitting that this year gave us not one, but two films about the history-making President Barack Obama as he completes his final term. In the summer we were gifted with the endearingly romantic “Southside With You,” and now Vikram Gandhi brings us the equally compelling “Barry,” exploring Obama’s formative years at Columbia University.
“Barry” takes place in 1981, when Obama has just arrived on the campus of Columbia University. A transfer from Occidental College, he is entering his junior year ready to embrace the new experiences that New York City can provide. But the Ivy League experience isn’t quite what he expected. As he navigates the various social circles on campus, he struggles to fit in, forcing him to reflect on his multicultural upbringing, the injustices plaguing society and his goals for the future.
As a coming-of-age drama, it’s fascinating to compare “Barry” to the work of Richard Linklater. The most obvious connection is the casting of Ellar Coltrane as Obama’s roommate, but even more so, it’s fascinating to see how Gandhi’s film departs from Linklater’s trademark approach. Through films like “Boyhood” and “Everybody Wants Some!!,” Linklater has tried to emphasize the universality of the coming-of-age experience in America. In the latter for example, the film’s lead (played by Blake Jenner) marvels at the ease with which he and his baseball buddies (almost all white) can fit into the various social scenes on campus.
Such a party-hopping attempt is also shown in “Barry,” as our protagonist goes to a party catering to the university’s typically privileged white students (including his girlfriend) and later to a house party in the projects of Harlem. But at the end of each outing, his response is virtually the same. “This isn’t my scene.”
And it is this identity crisis which forms the basis for the film’s astute screenplay by Adam Mansbach. Indeed, rarely have the unique challenges of growing up biracial been captured with such keen empathy on screen. While Obama is famously known as the first black president of the United States, “Barry” depicts him as a young man still trying to find his place in the world.
As Obama explores the diverse range of New York City experiences (warmly shot by cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra) – from the hallowed dining rooms of the Yale Club to the burgeoning hip hop scene – Gandhi presents an inspired take on the character. Far removed from the “Yes We Can” optimism that defined his future presidential campaign, this version of Obama is more cynical of American society. Indeed, he could easily pass for a liberal millennial in post-election 2016.
And like any other biopic, the acting is a “make or break” component for the film’s success. Thankfully, newcomer Devon Terrell proves himself to be more than worthy of the lead role. His performance has the kind of lived-in subtlety that often goes underappreciated. But much like Obama himself, Terrell exudes a natural charisma that makes the performance completely affecting. Indeed, some of his best scenes are silent, as he wrestles with his internal conflicts. And Terrell is just one part of a uniformly strong ensemble. This includes Ashley Judd as his mother Ann Dunham, who is nevertheless disappointingly used as primarily a narrative device for Obama to discuss his daddy issues. Bechdel test anyone?
But whatever its shortcomings (there’s only so much the film can cover), “Barry” still succeeds not just as an examination of a great man, but of the society that molded him. Through Gandhi’s elegant direction, we get a rich sense of time and place, hinting towards the pervading inequalities and prejudice that influenced the leader he would become. Much like the epic O.J. Simpson saga released earlier this year, “Barry” shows that despite his biracial, multinational heritage, the Barack Obama we’ve come to know was indeed made in America.
“Barry” releases on Netflix Dec. 16.