A story of love, race, identity, and self-discovery. Netflix original movie, ’Barry’ is a must-see!
A movie does not have to be overstated to drive a message. It can be written, filmed, and acted out in a subtle way and still compel the mind to think and the heart to feel.
Written by Adam Mansbach and directed by Vikram Gandhi, ‘Barry’ is an emotional and thought-provoking roller coaster that you will not even know you were on until it is over. Although this is a fabricated account of President Barack Obama’s college life, it still does a great job of solidifying that the issues it addresses are very real.
It all begins with a young, cigarette-smoking Obama, played by Devon Terrell in his film debut, reading a heartfelt letter from his estranged father while on a plane on his way to New York City—the 80’s version. “There is an old saying that there are things a man can only learn in a city,” his father said in the letter. And learn he did.
As soon as Barry touches down in NYC he is bombarded with the “hospitality” the city has to offer. He even makes the rookie mistake of missing his stop on the train. When he finally gets off the graffiti-encrusted train to find his roommate, Obama learns that he has not yet arrived. On top of that he cannot get a hold of anyone he can crash with, leaving him to with no other choice but to sleep outside his first night in the city. The warmest welcome he receives is from Saleem, his coked-out, sex-crazed, and hilariously charming Pakistani friend, performed by Avi Nash.
It becomes abundantly clear early on that this is not a movie about Obama’s political journey, although there are political undertones throughout the movie. This is a story of self-discovery. With a white mother from Kansas and a Kenyan father he becomes increasingly at war with himself as to where he belongs as the movie unfolds.
It seems that every time Barry finds that spark of happiness in his skin something happens to remind him that he has not found the sense of comfort he desperately tries to find. It is in these moments that we see his confident façade shatter a bit.
Among his discourse between both white and black people there are many cringe-worthy cultural and racial moments that change Obama’s mindset. There is the arrogant white young man in Barry’s philosophy class that asks why “it” always has to be about slavery. Then there is the conversation between Barry and his roommate, Will, played by Ellar Coltrane, about where Barry belongs in this world, to which Will contributes something along the lines of, “But you’re half white.” Or the rich white man, ironically Barry’s girlfriend’s father, who confuses Barry for a bathroom attendant and leaves him a tip for handing over a paper towel. There is also the incident during his first night in NYC where he visits his new campus to take it all in, and a school security officer singles him out based on the color of his skin alone. And of course there is the tense, yet loving connection between him and his mother, Ann Dunham, depicted by Ashley Judd.
Barry also meets a white girl, Charlotte, played by Anya, Taylor-Joy, who he
immediately makes his girlfriend, only to discover he does not fit into her world. No
matter how much he tries to go to her parties, family weddings, or dinner with her
parents he goes to, her always feels like an outsider. Walking around his own
neighborhood with her warrants stares from everyone, which Charlotte does not
seem to notice because the shocked looks are not directed towards her. This is a
struggle that Barry deals with for a lot of the movie, to which Saleem chimes in by
saying, “They will never accept us.”
Fellow college students and basketball partener-in-crime, PJ, performed by Jason
Mitchell, and Barry become friends as well. Upon learning that Barry is from Hawaii,
Indonesia, and where his parents are from PJ does not hesitate to let Barry know
that he is an exceptional person. After not fitting in with his fellow white students, PJ
invited Barry to a party at his project building. Again, Barry seems to feel at home
only to get punched in the face and realize that that is not his “scene” either. But PJ
opens up Barry’s mind to a world that is new to him—a world where people suffer.
One of the most powerful lines of the entire film is when PJ says, “…This is
government housing. This is how the government does our people.”
In one of the final scenes, Barry experiences a great loss. However, it is a very pivotal time in Barry’s life, and through that loss his gains something. He meets a married couple that are both activists that cause Barry to see things in a new light. Barry realizes that his cultural background, all of the places he has lived, and his blackness embody all that he is when the male activist tells him, “It makes you American, and you don’t ever have to choose.” The woman activist goes on to say that everything Barry has endured and will have to endure in the future is a struggle, but a beautiful one.
Through this new sense of self, we see a shift. Barry has the courage to read a letter that he had meant to send to his father, but never got the nerve to send. A voiceover plays of him reading the letter. At the end the letter, it is signed not as Barry, but as Barrack—another subtly of the film that shows Obama accepting who he is by using his full name.
Although the film doesn’t touch on politics—in fact the only thing more shocking than the fact that young Barack Obama smoked weed is the fact that he thought politics was a bunch of bulls***—there is a part where Barry goes to the basketball court that he frequently goes to, and the only player is a young black boy. Obama offers to play a game of HORSE, and for the first time Obama seems completely relaxed. In my opinion, this is foreshadowing the impact Barack Obama will have on the lives of countless people of color—especially young black men—as President of the United States.
A “beautiful struggle” indeed.