In the second film about Barack Obama to come out this year, Barry explores the formative years of our current president's life with thought-provoking results.
In his autobiography Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama only spends about six pages talking about the time period when he was an undergrad at Columbia University in New York. So while there isn’t a lot of public information about Obama’s experiences in the early 1980s, the filmmakers thought this must have been a very formative time for Barry, as he was known back then.
Barry presents a young man struggling to forge his identity. As a biracial, intellectual and charismatic student, Barry (Devon Terrell), isn’t sure where he fits in. Being one of the few people of color in his classes, the other students expect him to speak on behalf of all black people — something Barry doesn’t feel comfortable doing.
Adding to his identity crisis is the fact that Barry grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. PJ (Jason Mitchell), one of Barry's friends, tells him, "You're a whole different type of brother. You do realize that, right?"
Barry is also dating a white woman, Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose world of wealth and privilege doesn’t seem to include him despite her strong romantic feelings for him.
In a scene in a country club bathroom, just before Barry is about to meet Charlotte’s parents, her father, Bill (Linus Roache), mistakes Barry for the bathroom attendant and gives him a tip. For civility’s sake, neither men address the incident during dinner, but it is just one of many moments in the film that tell Barry he’s an outsider who’s value is less than the others around him.
Similarly, Barry gets judged by his black friends for dating a white woman, making for a nearly schizophrenic experience as he tries to figure out his identity.
Barry screenwriter Adam Mansbach told SheKnows that he was eager to explore this particular time in Obama’s life because it was so complicated.
“This time period was very formative, but also very opaque. The challenge of figuring out who he was then, what his concerns were and retrofitting who he was then based on who he is now, given the scant material available, seemed like a fascinating challenge to me.”
This film doesn’t include any major epiphanies or conclusions, and leaves young Barry in an active state of transition, which is unusual for a biopic, but also very thought-provoking. The filmmakers can’t say specifically how Barry’s experiences in New York transformed him, only that they did.
Earlier this year, the film Southside with You was released, also focusing on another very specific time period in Obama’s life, 1989, when he went on his first date with Michelle Robinson, who would later become his wife. In Southside, Obama is depicted as having come to terms with his racial identity and focused on his talents as a leader.
No sitting president has ever had two films made about him. We asked Mansbach why he thinks storytellers were so interested in this president.
“He’s compelling to filmmakers because he’s both incredibly open, articulate, reflective and yet, there’s that professorial quality that some people describe as aloofness that keeps him more distant than some of us would like him to be. Someone like that invites exploration and tempts you to crack the nut to figure out what’s going on.”
Given the division of the country over President-elect Donald Trump, Mansbach also says there’s already “a tremendous amount of nostalgia that’s going to increase daily.”
Barry is a fascinating exploration of not only the formative years of Barack Obama, but also of race and culture in America. The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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