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Review: In ‘Barry,’ a young Obama, long before ‘hope’

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    This image released by Netflix shows Devon Terrell as Barack Obama in a scene from “Barry.”

Not since young Abe have the early formations of an American president inspired as much moviemaking as Barack Obama’s early life.

Vikram Ghandi’s “Barry,” a snapshot of Obama as a college student, is the second of the year, following Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You,” a presidential rom-com about Obama’s first date with Michelle. These films may be just the start of the wave of Obama nostalgia to soon wash over the country (or at least approximately half of it). But the pleasant surprise is that both are fairly good, thoughtful films. The odds of this happening, while Obama is still in office, even Nate Silver might struggle to compute.

“Barry” is set in 1981 New York and “Southside With You” takes place in 1989 Chicago, but they have much in common. Both are framed as Obama prequels but use him as a prism through which to investigate race in America. They each delight in the novelty of a more human-sized version of the POTUS-to-be: smoking cigarettes, cursing and grooving to ’80s tunes. And both give a sense of a unique mind beginning taking shape. In “Southside” we see him reading Toni Morrison and watching Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”; in “Barry” it’s “Invisible Man” and “Black Orpheus.”

In “Barry,” his destiny is further away. He’s a little more Prince Hal. In early scenes, Obama (an excellent Devon Terrell) argues politics and Plato with young Reaganites at Columbia, but his interest in civic life hasn’t yet manifested. Politics, he tells his girlfriend Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy), are useless. “Come on, the president’s an actor,” he says. Later, while strolling arm-in-arm with his mom (Ashley Judd), he talks about fleeing society and becoming a monk. “Hope” is a long way off.

“Your politics are cute,” says Charlotte, a wealthy white girl from Connecticut.

To a certain extent, “Barry” shares the same superficial infatuation with a bachelor Obama. The film, written by Adam Mansbach, has bits pulled from Obama’s memoir “Dreams From My Father,” but large parts of it are invented, as are some characters.

What “Barry” most captures is an Obama struggling to find his identity and his place in the world, highly attuned to his surroundings. He walks the streets of Harlem, playing pickup basketball and perusing the books of sidewalk vendors. Where is from? The answer is complicated whenever he answers it. Hawaii. Indonesia. His father’s from Kenya. He’s harassed both by the security guards at Columbia and his more thuggish neighbors. “I fit in nowhere,” he says.

Pulling him in one direction is Charlotte, who Taylor-Joy (the breakout star of “The Witch”) plays with great tenderness. Her feelings for Barry are genuine, but her understanding of race is precocious. As the two draw closer, Barry is increasingly uncomfortable in the relationship and — as we know — he’ll ultimately reject the future she holds for another.

With much of the detail of Obama’s life from this period needing to be invented, “Barry” sometimes resorts to more clichéd scenes. In one, he’s mistaken for a bathroom attendant at the Yale Club. But much of the film’s reality — not its sometimes forced 1981 period detail but its representation of racial undercurrents — feels genuine. That’s partly due to the fine cast, led by Terrell but also including Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton”) as a friend met on the basketball court.

Given that we have two Obama dramas before the president has even left the White House, we’re probably in for dozens more. They will likely tackle larger moments in his political life, and will surely trade low-key naturalism for bigger biopic moments. “Barry” and “Southside With You,” more about the man than any myth, have done admirably in setting the stage. But their underlying optimism for the future that lay ahead, though, might already be dated.

“Barry,” a Netflix release, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

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  • I wonder if these awesome documentaries also include some of his other youthful highlights, like getting high all day long with his “choom gang” spoiled brat friends at Punahou, snorting cocaine at Occidental, associating with communist radicals and sexual predators on the FBI watch-list, with domestic terrorists who burn and stomp on American flags, with racist ideologue preachers who hate our country, and not to mention his lifelong penchant for dabbling in Islam?

    Now THAT would be a documentary worth watching, if only we didn’t already know about all of it.

    I often joke with my friends in federal law enforcement that with a resume like Barry’s, not only could you NEVER get into any federal law enforcement agency in the nation; NEVER get into any state or municipal law enforcement agency; NEVER get even a low-grade government security clearance; probably not even get hired as a mall security guard (won’t pass the drug test); but you can become President of the United States of America.

    Wonderful, isn’t it? And who says Affirmative Action doesn’t work?

    The only documentary I want to see is the real life footage of Barry LEAVING the White House and taking his a$$ back to Chicago where he belongs. I don’t have to worry about him ever causing epic traffic jams here in Honolulu again–he’ll never again have a presidential motorcade and, more importantly, he ain’t coming back here if he can’t force taxpayers to foot the bill for his multi-million dollar vacations.

    Good riddance, and End of an Eight-Year Error.

    • Wonder if they will included college era days. His scholastic records/data are absent and no matter how much efforts were exerted none have been uncovered. No data as a student whether he belonged to a frat, girl friends and like of any college student. Everything about him was shredded with mystery. Yet now, they have data about his background to make documentary! Strange?

      • They can’t. Barry paid $120k on lawyer’s fees to have his college records sealed forever. Most familiar with the case know why, and it ain’t because his grades sucked (he was a C student, by the way): It’s because he enrolled as an international student after returning from Indonesia, where Soetoro and his mother had enrolled him as an Indonesian citizen.

        But that would be too truthful, and in the current climate of poo-say-a$$ liberal sensibilities, telling the truth means you’re a racist and probably hate women, too.

    • Such vitriol, hatred, and anger. And ignorance. Why would Obama NEVER get into any fed enforcement agency? He was never convicted of any crime. Of course he could pass a drug test; those substances don’t stay in your body forever. (and frankly drug tests should be banned; I consider it a violation of the 4th amendment against unreasonable search and seizure). So what if he associated with “radicals”? That’s not illegal. It’s our right to do so, in a free society. (and who in the world are these “sexual predators on the FBI watch list”?). Who cares about burning the American flag? That’s allowed. One of my favorite memories is when I was walking w/my father and some protestors ran up and asked if he was a vet (he was), then lit their US flag on fire and said “Whaddya think of that?” My father shrugged and said “Nothing,” and walked on. They stood their stunned, having clearly expected an argument. Boy, did that take the wind out of their sails.

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