Before he was Barack, he was …
An account of a formative period in the life of former United States President Barack Obama, Netflix’s Barry trusts its audience to read big themes and ideas into scenarios and situations that, in isolation, might seem small. We bring our own knowledge of Obama’s historical, cultural, and political context to the party, and so this seemingly simple story of a young university student’s early experiences studying at New York City’s Columbia University in 1981 is rather fractal in nature — each little fragment contains the whole.
The whole what? Well, that may depend on where you stand on Obama as a public figure. As portrayed by Devon Terrell, Ophelia (2018), he’s a fiercely intelligent and articulate young man who is nonetheless troubled by issues of identity and belonging. Barry is charming, ambitious, considerate, and open, but he has no ‘tribe’ — his blackness is a barrier to acceptance by the white student body, while his developmental experiences growing up abroad and his education make him an outsider in the African-American community.
His alienation is compounded by his mixed-race status (Ashley Judd plays Obama’s white mother, Ann Dunham) and his distant, strained relationship with his Kenyan father. These issues are focused and dramatized primarily in his relationship with a white girl, Charlotte (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy, playing a composite character), whose presence at his side in public attracts stares.
So, effectively, this is the story of a young man trying to find his place in the world, colored by our knowledge as viewers that his place will one day include the White House. So, the thrill is in seeing young Barry participate in classroom debates, knowing his oratory skills will one day be used at the Presidential podium; in seeing him discuss important works of black literature such as The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois, or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, heck, in seeing him relax and smoke a cigarette (44’s rather endearing vice is used to build thoughtful pauses into the narrative).
Devon Terrell makes for a great young Obama, cultivating a performance that utilizes the actual man’s mannerisms and voice without crossing over into parodic caricature. It helps that this is set at a time when Obama’s traits were still being formed, and so a certain looseness in application of behaviors and tics that would later be concretized makes sense — this is a man being molded by his experiences, not a man already set in stone.
And while there’s a slight tendency to hagiography — Great Democratic Hope Obama was still in office when it was released, lest we forget — director Vikram Gandhi, Kumaré (2011), and screenwriter Adam Mansbach wisely don’t canonize young Barry too much, giving him space to make mistakes, to be angry and affronted, to wrestle with choices. The final destination is never in any doubt, but the journey is enjoyable.
It helps that the film’s setting feels so vibrant and lived in. Gandhi, who apparently lived in the same Morningside Heights neighborhood as Obama and also studied at Columbia University, captures the feeling of a decade turning quite evocatively, as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s and attitudes were in flux for better and worse — most of Gandhi’s work has been on documentary features. This is a wonderfully tactile film that really succeeds in drawing the audience into its setting.
Who that audience might be is another question. This is, perhaps glibly, one for the fans. If you’re interested in spending a little time hanging out with young Barry O and getting a handle on some of the social and personal forces that shaped him, this ticks that box rather nicely. If you’re not, the dramatic arc is fairly shallow, and I can’t see there being anything here for anyone not already keyed into the film’s subject matter. This is a decent, somewhat inessential biopic — you’ll dig it if you dig the subject, you won’t if you don’t.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson