“I’m from a lot of places. But I…uh, live here now.”
Perhaps it’s my age, perhaps it’s the way news and forms of media are consumed now, perhaps it’s myth-making at its finest — but to me, Barack Obama has come across like the first President who didn’t come off a politician assembly line. He was a person first, a political presence. As the Obama Era comes to an end, and the horrifying Trump Era rears its ugly head, it’s hard not to look back over the Obama presidency and sigh.
The fact that Obama has always seemed so down-to-earth perhaps explains why we had not just one but two different films that dramatize the man’s youth. With all due respect, there are very few modern presidents whose youths would seem interesting enough to fill two different movies. But with Obama, the curiosity is there. The sense to reach into the past and learn the story behind the President.
Southside With You took a romantic approach, literally, by chronicling the first date between the future First Couple. Vikram Gandhi’s Barry, which arrives on Netflix today, takes a route. It’s set even early in Obama’s life, when he transferred to Columbia University in New York in 1981. Southside With You was a charming romance, but no one would accuse it of being subtle. It seemed at every turn, that film was winking at us, nudging us with its elbow, and saying, “This guy is going to be president some day!” Barry is the complete opposite. For one thing, the name “Obama” is never used in the film, and “Barrack” is only used once near the film’s conclusion. This is not a film about a president; this is a film about a young man trying to find out where he belongs in the world.
Barry (Devon Terrell, fantastic here) comes to the grimy, seedy New York of the 80s and is quick to notice he’s one of the few black students in his classes at Columbia. The first night he’s in town, he stops for a smoke break on campus and is hassled by a security guard who doesn’t even believe he’s a student. But he’s sharp, and he’s smart, and it’s not long before he’s begun a romance with fellow student Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy). The subject of Barry’s race never seems to cross Charlotte’s mind, but it’s never far from Barry’s. When she wants to take Barry home to visit her family during Thanksgiving, he’s hesitant.
At the same time, he doesn’t quite seem to fit in with the black community either. When he first steps onto a basketball court, he seems out of sorts, despite being adept at the game. His attempts to break-up a scuffle fail miserably. When his mother (Ashley Judd) drops in for an unexpected visit, the pair go to see Black Orpheus, one of his mother’s favorites. “What attracted you to that movie?” Barry asks later. “I thought it was exotic,” his mother wistfully says. “I’d never seen anything like it before.” “Like dad?” Barry asks. Barry’s estranged father hovers over Barry’s life like a spectre. He has plans to visit the man, but can never quite reconcile his feelings regarding him either. But what haunts Barry the most is a question everyone keeps asking him: “Where are you from?”
Barry moves along at its own pace, never quite settling on a particular narrative but never feeling directionless either. It helps that Terrell’s performance is so utterly entrancing and thoughtful. The actor doesn’t attempt to impersonate the real Obama, but does a close enough approximation of Obama’s cadence to make it convincing. It’s better this way, because again, this isn’t really a film about Obama — it’s a film about Barry. And it’s wonderful.