Director: Vikram Gandhi
Cast: Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jason Mitchell, Avi Nash, Ellar Coltrane
Watch Barry online in the UK: Netflix UK
Vikram Gandhi’s Barry is 2016’s second biopic about the (at the time of writing) current American President, after the Barack-Michelle first-date movie Southside with You, and it is similarly concerned with honing in on a specific short period of Obama’s life, using it as a means of examining how this time informed a path the man would later take, rather than attempting to tell an entire life’s story. It’s a completely different approach to Oliver Stone’s W., which was another film about a US President to debut at the tail-end of their tenure in the White House. While that messy chronicle suggested a veteran filmmaker having lost his game just a tad, Barry, as Gandhi’s non-documentary feature debut, suggests a promising new voice in American cinema.
Set in 1981, Barry’s loose narrative follows its 20-year-old protagonist (Devon Terrell) as he arrives in New York City to study political science at Columbia University for his junior year. A light-skinned black man with roots spread all over California, Hawaii and Kenya, Barry feels both visible and invisible in the context of his new surroundings, and increasingly unsure of where he fits in the world – able to pass everywhere, but feeling like there’s no tangible place to where he belongs.
Scattered throughout his journey of self-discovery are a self-consciously slumming Pakistani friend, Saleem (Avi Nash, charismatic and funny); African-American basketball ace PJ (Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell), another student trying to work out how to balance his roots with where he wants to be; and white girlfriend Charlotte (The Witch breakout Anya Taylor-Joy), whose company encourages him towards a politically active life but also exacerbates his various hang-ups regarding race. Charlotte is an amalgamation of various real-life girlfriends of the young Obama, although the composite nature of the character feels surprising, given how vivid and lived-in Taylor-Joy makes her.
As the young Barack who goes by Barry, impressive newcomer Devon Terrell bears some physical resemblance to the man he’s playing, but he sidesteps cheap imitation and keeps the mannerism-aping to smaller, less immediately obvious elements of his performance. It’s a smart choice. After all, this is meant to be a look at someone who’s in the process of becoming his own person; formation of identity is one of its main thematic concerns, and that formation is going to continue on long after the closing credits – something Gandhi and screenwriter Adam Mansbach make clear in how they end the film.
A key strength of Terrell’s performance is his deftness with conveying an actual internal life of various contradictions, making him feel like a real person, rather than a cipher or caricature on a pre-ordained journey to greatness. In fact, applying the biopic label to this film at all feels somewhat shaky. There are specificities to its story, of course, but Barry operates just as well as a broader portrait of race, gender, class and tribal tendencies in the United States. In light of the new American presidency the world is facing, and how that has come about, examination of all of these factors combined is as vital now as it’s ever been.
Barry is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.