Barry Is a First Class Biopic
And a remarkable portrait of a young Barack Obama.
It’s puzzling how we view race so definitively when so much of how we categorize it is arbitrary. President Barack Hussein Obama will go down in history as America’s first black president. The thing is, his mother is white. No one ever calls him the first white president. Genetically, he’s split down the middle, so why is it acceptable that so many people only consider him black? It’s a touchy, mind-bending issue that no one will figure out anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring. What better director to tackle young Barack Obama’s story than Vikram Gandhi. With his film, Kumaré, Gandhi established himself as a provocative filmmaker unafraid of tackling sensitive issues. In Barry, Gandhi explores the life of a young Obama and shows us how the racial enmity Barack experienced as a college student informed the man we know today.
Barry tells the story of 21-year-old Barack “Barry” Obama’s (Devon Terrell) introduction to New York City. Barry feels like an outsider from the moment he arrives. He’s harassed by campus security, bullied for cigarettes by local miscreants, and takes a physical beating on the basketball courts. Making matters worse, he’s the only black student in 4 of his 5 classes. Barry quickly befriends affable druggie Saleem (Avi Nash), streetsmart/book smart PJ (Jason Mitchell), and his eventual girlfriend Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy). Each of these characters opens Barry’s eyes to different ways of perceiving the world around him. The film takes a small slice from Barry’s junior year at Columbia University and lets it play out in what borders on a series of thematically related vignettes.
The easy thing to do here would be to serve up a president Obama biopic à la Forrest Gump: Here’s the moment Barry decides to run for office or here’s the moment 21-year-old Barry bumps into a 39-year-old Joe Biden in a Spanish Harlem bodega. Thankfully, Gandhi takes a restrained approach. Instead, we watch Barry’s evolution into Barack through flashes of character. When Barry tells Charlotte he isn’t interested in politics, the moment is played for laughs. Later on, when Barry is at a restaurant meeting Charlotte’s parents for the first time, there is a noticeable change in his demeanor. Barry wouldn’t open up about his father earlier on, but at dinner he makes him sound like an extraordinary man who is also a part of his life. It’s an example of Barry jumping through hoops, proving to white folks he isn’t one of “those” blacks. Although the story he tells isn’t a lie, it’s a deliberate omission of truth. Gandhi shows us that while Barry isn’t into politics, he’s already a politician.
Like most forms of artistic expression, it’s hard to quantify what constitutes good acting. No matter how good you think someone’s performance is there will be somebody else claiming they hate it. One of the rare areas where people do agree is spot-on impressions. Think of how many actors win awards for their work in biopics. There is a 3-year run (2004–2006) where actors won Oscars for playing famous men: Jamie Foxx (Ray), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland). It’s also important to make the distinction between a great actor and a great mimic. A comedian can do a spot on Jack Nicholson impression but that doesn’t mean he could play Jack’s role in The Shining. Terrell, he of the anemic IMDb page, goes far beyond mimicry – but let’s start with mimicry anyways. He nailed Barack’s voice: vocal inflection, tone, awkward hums and haws. He has Barack’s posture and physical presence down pat; from certain angles the resemblance is uncanny. However, it’s what’s going on below the surface that makes his performance so extraordinary.
Terrell conveys that same coolest guy in the room disposition that Obama is famous for. The film establishes Barry’s penchant for brooding but when he sets his mind to being engaged, it’s a seamless transition. On a moment’s notice, Barry goes from hanging out at a frat party to dancing at an all-night disco. When motivated, Barry switches from rock and roll to hip-hop as easily as a DJ flips records. The problem, however, is that Barry must modulate who he is in order to fit in amongst others; it’s that sacrifice that has him circling back to brooding. Terrell is wonderful at physically expressing the way Barry sizes up every situation. Despite Barry’s laid-back exterior, Terrell still conveys the differences between moments when his mental cogs are spinning and times when they’re grinding.
Terrell’s performance in Barry is like getting called up to the big leagues and hitting a home run during your first at bat. His fantastic work makes Gandhi’s job as a director so much easier. Terrell just puts the movie on his back and carries it off into the sunset. Watching two up and comers like Terrell and Taylor-Joy share the screen is like looking through a crystal ball and viewing Hollywood’s bright future. Gandhi isn’t overshadowed by his talented cast either, he holds his own behind the camera. Barry is well paced and doesn’t rely on tired biopic tropes to get points across. The film is also really funny. Saleem and PJ each put their considerable comedic chops on display. There is a small nitpick. As Saleem, Nash often comes rocketing into his scenes just a little too hot. At times, Nash feels like he’s acting in a separate film (he’s bordering on sit-com territory).
There is a pervasive sense of melancholy hanging over Barry’s time in New York. His interactions with people and the rush of the big city only seems to drive him further inwards. Barry moves to New York on his own hoping to discover who he is. As he makes his way through student unions, night clubs, basketball courts, and even relationships, the only thing people seem to tell him is who he isn’t. On Barry’s long path towards self-actualization, that’s as good a place to start as any.