The most profound experiences of our lives happen during those tumultuous years before we have achieved our own level of success. The moment before we meet the love of our life, start a family, or become an entrepreneur. In the film Barry, directed by Vikram Ghandhi, we dive into the origin story of our first Black President Barack Obama. The story examines the college years of Barry and his experiences during his years as an academic at Columbia University.
Earlier this year, the film Southside With You gave us some background about the budding romance between Barack and Michelle Obama. It was a dramatic depiction about one of our favorite relationships in pop culture. The film Barry, which is more serious in tone; and focused more on Barack Obama’s self-analyzing and contemplation of his experiences, doesn’t quite have the impact that one would expect from a strong biopic.
The pacing of this film is a bit slow and in various scenes it tends to drag out a bit longer than it should. There was nothing unique or innovative about this tale of character analysis as we embark on Barry’s own reflection of his relationships and coming to terms with his identity. The were some moments that I think would definitely resonate with viewers who identify as biracial where they feel torn between two worlds. In Barry’s case, he’s too white for Black people and he’s too Black for white people. There is a noted scene when a well-dressed Barry (played by Devon Terrell) is in a public restroom and he’s mistaken for a washroom attendant at a party with a predominantly white crowd. On the flip side of that coin, is when Barry is spending time in Harlem with his white girlfriend, Charlotte (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) and is the victim of the side-eye treatment from local pedestrians and residents scrutinizing the couple walk down the street arm-in-arm.
Barry’s formative years built during his relationships with various colleagues plays as more tropey than anything else. We have the white guy Will (played by Ellar Coltrane) who is oblivious and willfully ignorant in his social consciousness towards race as well as utterly clueless about his own white privilege. Then there is the street smart friend from Harlem (played by Jason Mitchell) who attempts to have Barry get in touch with his Blackness and works to get him acclimated to the projects of Harlem. Then there is Saleem (played by Avi Nash) who’s an eccentric, free spirited landlord who encourages Barry to discover his own rebellious awakening. The most compelling performance in this film was by Nash’s depiction of Saleem who provided a great deal of levity and comic relief to this solemn film. There were moments that provided kernels of truth to what our future president endured as a Black man attending a PWI like Columbia and having to deal with racial profiling and the kinds of systems that oppress people of color every day. It oddly enough was refreshing for me that in these moments, it felt like that he was just like the rest the of us and has walked in our shoes too.
Terrell’s portrayal of Barack Obama is done with subtlety and not so much of a direct impersonation of our Commander in Chief. However, because the performance is less of a characterization and more of a nuanced interpretation; it feels muddled and the charismatic idiosyncrasies of President Obama sort of falls to the wayside.
Ashley Judd makes a surprising appearance as Barack Obama’s mother and Jenna Elfman also appears as Kathy (Charlotte’s mother). However, even these name stars weren’t enough to bring life into this lackluster film. Aside from Saleem, none of the characters including our lead protagonist were that compelling.
The film overall tries to deliver a substantive story with a well-researched historical context from Adam Mansbach’s script, but it is the tropey characters, underwhelming performances and unimaginative plot that causes the film to fall short. Barry instead becomes an uneventful origin story to one of the most fascinating, captivating, and prolific public figures of our time.
Barry premieres on Netflix Dec 16th