TV Review - Barry (2016)

This year brought us two films about our 44th President, Barack Obama. The first one premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It then got a quasi-wide release in theaters in August. It was called Southside With You and it focused on the first date of Obama and his future wife, Michelle Robinson, during the summer of 1989. While trying to do a love story, writer-director Richard Tanne also tried to lay down the beginnings of a road map that made it clear that Obama, as played by Parker Sawyers, was a man who was destined to be the president that we all know him to be.

This movie isn't as on-the-nose as Southside With You. Maybe because it takes place further back in time. The setting this time isn't just one day as Tanne's film. It's in fact the first year that Obama spent at Columbia University starting in the fall of 1981 as a transfer student from Occidental College.

Devon Terrell, in his debut feature, stars as Barry, the 20-year-old college student who in 27 years everyone will call President Obama. Now, he's just a guy trying to figure out his place in a New York City that is at times hostile and at other times hospitable. The problem is that whether it's hostile or hospitable, the feeling that Barry has is pretty much the same. He feels out of place or that he doesn't fit. He's constantly asked where he's from, and he also gives multiple answers as if he doesn't know or has no strong sense of what his roots are.

This film got a nomination at the Spirit Awards for Best First Screenplay for Adam Mansbach, and what Mansbach's script gets is the conflict that not just Obama but also many biracial people must feel every once and awhile. Whether he's surrounded by mostly white people or he's surrounded by mostly black people, he never feels totally at home. This feeling is a better expression of the issues that President Obama faces currently and provides a better portrait of him than the speechifying or dead-on mannerisms or voice as captured by Sawyers.

It's also a feeling that Sawyers couldn't fully convey given that he was perhaps too dark-skinned for that predicament to be accurate for him. Terrell on the other hand is more akin to the real-life Obama's skin complexion. Of course, Barry could never be confused for anything other than an African-American, but there's still a part of him that can't be denied. His white mother Ann Dunham, played by Ashley Judd, is one such part.

The other part is his girlfriend, a white girl named Charlotte, played by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch and Morgan). She's colorblind in the true and good sense. She is perhaps ignorant to the racial tensions around her, but she isn't contributing to them either. She doesn't care what people think about her interracial relationship, which isn't the case for Barry. As any man in his position, the relationship questions not only his blackness but also his maleness, and a lot of it stemming from his relationship with his father who is mainly absentee.

Director Vikram Gandhi has directed only a documentary prior to this. This is his first narrative. His documentary Kumaré though was also about identity, as much as this one is. Yet, that's all the parallel that should be drawn. With this film, Gandhi doesn't draw nearly as much controversy. Gandhi instead accomplishes to paint not a full picture but a full feeling that resonates very well.

Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.
Available on Netflix.


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