As President Barack Obama wraps up his final week in office, journalists, pundits and historians are reflecting on his administration and his impact on society. Looking back much further is the Netflix production of Barry. This narrowly framed fictionalization of Obama’s college years at Columbia University opens with Barry arriving in a bustling, dilapidated, graffiti-laden New York in August 1981. The city is also where the film will close, and in between it follows the future president around campus, along the streets of his Harlem neighborhood and into house parties and restaurants—every scene calculated to emphasize his wisdom and self-consciousness about floating on the periphery of society. The execution of this approach takes an interesting idea (a portrait of a historic figure in his formative years) and renders it a dramatically inert, intellectually ossified curio. The future leader of the free world might as well be Bowie’s Starman, so intent is Barry on showing its protagonist as a kind of alien hero with insight and intelligence beyond that of mere mortals.
This outsider persona is one of the romantic notions of Barry: our first black president as bookish, slightly introverted and whip-smart. As Barry, Devon Terrell embodies the reserve, detachment and air of cool associated with his real-life counterpart. Terrell’s got the smooth resonance of Obama’s voice down, along with the famous intellectual stammer that comes into play when his character is giving thought to contentious topics, like those he engages about race, identity and the concept of “home.” For him to hold forth on those subjects, the movie is constructed like a series of carefully crafted set-pieces.
An early scene in Barry finds students and their instructor half-smiling with admiration at Barry’s theory of governance, with only the most ignorant—presented as a hawkish white Reaganite—daring to disagree. Such is his power that one of those classmates, Charlotte (an excellent Anya Taylor-Joy), will become his girlfriend. Their multiracial relationship will then offer Barry all manner of opportunities to test the limits of his desire to fit in while encountering a steady stream of racism, classism and narrow-mindedness.
This on-the-nose approach defines the movie’s aesthetics and its politics. On his first night in New York, Barry is confronted by a white police officer for not having his campus ID, while a white student is given a pass for open-carrying a beer. Later, Barry’s called “College Boy” in disparaging tones by a local who hangs out in front of his building, while his girlfriend’s father (Linus Roache) mistakes him for a bathroom attendant and never apologizes once he realizes the gaffe. Despite each affront, Barry carries on with poise, avoiding confrontation and insinuating himself into the confidence prejudiced toward him with his charm, acquiescence and intelligence, as if the film is setting up a direct line of causation between Barry’s ideal qualities and his presidency. While playing streetball, for example, Barry exercises his diplomacy skills by stepping in to break up a fight. As part of an expansive narrative, these scenes might play better, but because they make up the entirety of Barry, the movie’s insights don’t unfold. It’s all mostly didactic and obvious.
This tendency to be cute and pat is constant throughout. Asked where he’s from-which happens consistently-Barry name-checks Hawaii and Indonesia, his white Kansan mother and Kenyan father. Because of his personal history, he feels he’s lacking the roots that others take for granted. As if this idea has to be underlined, the script has fellow student and basketball rival PJ (Jason Mitchell) dub Barry “Invisible” after noticing his reading material (Ellison’s Invisible Man).
Barry makes it clear Barry feels caught between worlds and too visible, particularly when he’s with Charlotte in public and believes he’s being judged for having a white girlfriend. When she treats him like her personal fashion model while taking photos in Central Park, his discomfort is obvious. The real Barry—at least the way he perceives himself—is the self-styled poet from nowhere, and the movie indulges in this romanticism. When he’s alone, Barry is smoking, deep in thought; sharply dressed, he’ll walk along the sidewalk to take in the neighborhood and buy a W.E.B. Du Bois book from a street vendor. Such is his cool and insight he can look at people and size up what they’re going to be in life. Even though he doesn’t yet realize what destiny has in store for himself, it’s just a matter of time before he taps into his inner genius. (In an eye-rolling scene that references his 2008 campaign slogan, he tells Charlotte that people make change, not systems.)
Even Barry’s insensitivity is given a positive spin, as when he tells Charlotte that her family, which he hasn’t yet met, is probably racist, offering a withering, “I’m sure some of their best friends are black.” The disdain for Charlotte and her role as foil are undeniable during a key scene where she professes her love. As the camera lingers on her face, the film panders to those inclined to disapprove Barry’s choice in mate.
When Barry’s mom (Ashley Judd) arrives to visit, she shows off her intellectual bona fides, and we see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Like her son, she’s gifted at “code switching,” using “retrograde patriarchal paradigm” in a sentence for Barry’s college friends, and “right-on brother” for a hippie singing “This Land Is Your Land.” These parallel Barry’s ability to ingratiate himself to whomever wherever he goes.
That gift for fitting in is how Barry demonstrates that Barack Obama is both a regular guy and once-in-a-generation talent. He can ball; he likes his Schlitz beer; he can be an impromptu bartender at a frat party while silently judging the antics of his less-woke peers with his sage looks. Barry is almost tragically hip: For all the efforts to humanize him, to make him accessible, Barry does the opposite. Barry makes him an icon, an enlightened soul whose struggles usually result from dim external forces. The story it tells isn’t one of growth, but of someone entering the world fully formed, waiting for the rest to catch on.
Director: Vikram Gandhi
Writer: Adam Mansbach
Starring: Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Avi Nash, Jason Mitchell, Ashley Judd, Linus Roache, Jenna Elfman
Release Date: December 16, 2016