UK Release Date: 16th December 2016
Runtime: 104 minutes
Director: Vikram Gandhi
Writer: Adam Mansbach
Starring: Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane, Ashley Judd, John Benjamin Hickey
Synopsis: Before he was President of the United States, Barack Obama was a student at Columbia University. This film follows these years in order to find the man behind the President.
Broadly speaking, the biopic genre can be boiled down to two types of movie. There’s the sprawling, life encompassing story from birth to a significant moment in their adult life, like Walk the Line, or character studies that use specific parts of a subject’s life to examine the making of the person, like Steve Jobs. Fans of the former may be disappointed by Vikram Gandhi‘s new Netflix movie, Barry, which pushes Barack Obama’s ascent in politics to one side to focus on his early experiences at college in New York.
Framed by issues of race and identity, this movie examines the insecurities that drove the choices and experiences of the young man who would later become President. Calling the movie Barry is an important move as it immediately sets out that this is not going to be the President Obama you know and puts in pride of place the struggles around identity that the man we know as Barack went through in his earlier years.
Most of these issues are explored through race. Barry says several times through the movie that he is of Kenyan and American heritage, but used to live in Indonesia and Hawaii before moving to New York. The idea of Barry travelling around without a home is further explored by his time at college, where he struggles with being “the only black guy in four of my five classes” and on the streets of New York, where his relationship with a white girl – Charlotte, ably played by Anya Taylor-Joy – causes him to feel under scrutiny from members of the local black community.
The issues are sensitively handled and escalate as Barry’s discomfort with them grows. It is helped by a very good central performance from Devon Terrell, who has little problem evoking Obama and how you imagine he would have been in his younger years. Barry makes no real attempt to address his fascination with politics. He calls it “bullshit” at one point, which you can’t help but feel is an in-joke between the film and its audience, but does put societal issues like poverty and race relations front and centre, which you feel play an important part in his transformation.
At times, the movie travels a bit slowly and doesn’t move away from its central themes at all, which makes it a focused and an effective character study, but it may become tiresome for those who don’t connect with the issues. At its core though, Barry is a coming-of-age story which uses race as its central driving force. For that reason, it stands out in the genre and is an engrossing watch, even though it might not satisfy everyone’s need to see exactly how Barry became Barack.
Pop or Poop?
The outgoing President of the United States gets a worthy biopic in this Netflix drama. Barry uses race issues to power its narrative, choosing to focus on a small portion of Obama’s life rather than using the traditional cradle to grave structure. Strong performances keep the story moving, even as the tightly controlled narrative struggles to explore more about the man.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.