Yesterday afternoon I caught Vikram Gandhi‘s Barry, a modest but sharply etched character study of young Barry Obama between ’81 and ’83, when he began and completed his junior and senior years at NYC’s Columbia University as a political science major, and more particularly when he began to grapple with his half-white, half-black identity.
Yes — another young Obama flick on top of Richard Tanne‘s commendable and charming Southside With You. Barry is obviously smallish but quite fluid and specific — carefully made, nicely layered, more observing of small details and generally a looser, craftier film than Southside, which (don’t get me wrong) I felt respect and affection for on its own terms.
Devon Terrell as 20 year-old Barry (i.e., pre-Barack) Obama in Vikram Gandi’s Barry.
Barack in ’81 or thereabouts.
Barry, in short, is basically a “who am I?” flick about social conflict, racism (both the benevolent and hostile kinds), hesitancy and uncertainty start to finish — a whole lotta frowning and meditating on Barry’s part.
It basically studies this athletic, mild-mannered young dude and gives him the time and the room to find his own way as he becomes friendly with a variety of black, brown and white characters on the Columbia campus and near his off-campus apartment on West 116th Street.
It ends on a note of self-acceptance, as you might expect, along with Obama’s decision to embrace his African-descended side by calling himself Barack, which happens at the end of the film, or sometime towards the end of his Columbia period.**
In his screen debut, Australian actor Devon Terrell plays Barry with enough of a physical resemblance to pass muster along with the right manner, voice and speaking style. It’s a confident, well-rooted performance. Qualifier: Terrell’s nose is a bit too Roman and his eyes indicate some kind of Hawaiian or Maori heritage — his features remind you a little bit of Dwayne Johnson‘s.
Barry’s serene and soulful white girlfriend is played by Anya Taylor Joy, his mom by Ashley Judd, one of his college pals by Boyhood‘s Ellar Coltrane and a spirited basketball-playing chum by Jason Mitchell.
During the last third I began to telepathically say to Barry, “Identity is a huge issue and yes, it can be a bitch, especially when you feel torn (suspended?) between black and white culture, but do you have to wear that downcast frown all the time? Life is short, right? Your dad abandoned you but your mom loves you, your grandparents love you, you’re going to a great school, you’re brilliant and well liked by everyone, you’re good looking and you’re fucking Anya Taylor-Joy…lighten up, dawg.”
I had never heard that Barack was slugged by some dude at a party in Harlem. It may not have happened, but in the film he’s talking to a cute black girl and all of a sudden this angry heavyset fuck (jealous ex-boyfriend or something) comes along and clocks him. Barry hits the pavement. The incident may have been recounted in Barack’s “Dreams From My Father,” but it’s been a while since I flipped through it.
I was living in a sublet on Bank Street when Barack was bunking it on West 116th. I was the editor of The Film Journal and doing movie pieces for Us and the N.Y. Post during this same period (’81 to ’83). There are a couple of scenes when Barry and Joy’s character hit a club that looks like Studio 54, which I went to five or six times. I also used to visit friends who lived near the Columbia campus. I could have run into Barry at a bar: “Yo…you got a vibe, brah…you lived in Indonesia?…I’m a film writer, nice to meetcha…let’s keep in touch.”
Joy gets some weird looks from Harlem residents when she and Barry are walking around. There was a whole different black-white vibe in New York back then. One time in ’79 or ’80 I absentmindedly got on an IND 8th Ave. northbound train and forgot to get off until I got to 116th Street. Being a local stop I naturally had to walk up and cross the street to change to a southbound train, and within 10 or 15 seconds a black dude indignantly said to me, “Hey, man…the fuck are you doin’ in our neighborhood?”
** According to a 3.22.08 Newsweek article, Obama “told his mom he wanted to be called Barack when she visited him in New York in the summer of ’81.”