It’s 1981 and Barry is just starting his junior year at Columbia University in New York. His estranged father is Kenyan and his mother is a white American. Some of his friends insist that he is fortunate to be mixed race because he should be able to fit in everywhere but for Barry it feels like he can’t fit in anywhere. Barry is the story of a young man finding his identity and searching for self-acceptance.
By the way, “Barry” is short for Barack. Yes, that one. Starring in his first feature film, Australian actor Devon Terrell is brave enough to portray the 44th President of the United States while the real one is still in office. It’s an impressive performance. Yes, he looks and sounds like him (though Avi Nash as Barry’s friend Saleem does an even better impression in two of the film’s funnier scenes). The real trick though is making the emotions seem believable while mimicking the future president’s signature speaking style without looking like he’s auditioning for Saturday Night Live. Terrell succeeds at convincingly playing a 20 year-old college student who swears, gets drunk, and gets punched in the face for chatting up another guy’s girl while never letting you forget that he is in fact playing the Barack that we know.
Director Vikram Gandhi and writer Adam Mansbach are less concerned with reminding you that young Barry will one day become the first black President. They are mostly concerned with the internal struggle of young men of mixed race in the US and use the details of the real Barack Obama’s life mostly to provide interesting context. I’ll admit that the context worked for me. I would have surely found this movie less gripping without knowing that this same young man’s historic inauguration will one day inspire hope for a brighter future for millions of Americans. (Not to mention around the world).
If you can believe Oliver Stone’s Snowden, which I saw at the festival the day before, Edward Snowden watched President Obama’s inauguration with a renewed faith in government. As he told filmmaker Laura Poitras, he really allowed himself to think that this is a leader who could bring some real change. As it turned out, when it came to illegal surveillance of law-abiding citizens, Snowden watched things go from bad to worse under Obama’s watch.
It can be hard to reconcile the idealistic young man of Barry with the president that we see in archival footage in Snowden. How do you claim a passion for social justice while sanctioning (or, at the very least, defending) illegally spying on your own citizens? Don’t get me wrong. I still love him and will miss him no matter who wins in November. But he is the President of the United States and every president has a certain amount of blood on their hands.
I understand that you don’t get to occupy the highest office in the land without getting your hands dirty. I’m just saying that there’s a story there, between the events of Barry and the events of Snowden. Barry, deliberately paced and completely unpretentious, has a story worth telling as does Snowden, which was self-important but undeniably gripping. But somewhere out there there’s got to be a movie that tells the story of the journey from hero of a nice little indie to the villain of an Oliver Stone movie. That’s the movie I’d really want to see.