BARRY: There is nothing presidential in Devon Terrell’s very entertaining portrayal. Linda Kallerus/Netflix
In 1981, 20-year-old Barack Hussein Obama transferred from Occidental College in Los Angeles to Columbia University in New York City. He was lean, handsome, curious about things, and a chain-smoker (a pack a day). The new Netflix biopic Barry, directed with superb economy by Vikram Gandhi, focuses on this brief and mostly uneventful period of his life. He arrives in NYC, settles in Harlem, makes new friends, attends classes, smokes a lot, plays basketball with area brothers, goes to parties and bars, starts dating a classmate—a white woman whose parents are rich but liberal—and goes to a very white and fancy wedding with her after learning about the death of his Kenyan father, a man he barely knew. That's pretty much the whole story of this snapshot biopic.

Barry's simplicity and realism are not about humanizing Obama, dislodging the myth-like halo surrounding a man who held the most powerful political position in the world for eight years and may one day be considered to be the greatest American president to ever live. No halo falls into the mud in this pic. Its realism and simplicity have a completely different purpose. The director, Gandhi, and the screenwriter, Adam Mansbach, want to capture what youth and college are really about: trying to figure out who the fuck you are. There are few 20-year-olds who have an idea of where they want to go in life. They are still very new to the world, still far from making any sense of their few memories, joys, and grievances. Barry begins in NYC and basically goes nowhere—because, at this time in its subject's life, there really isn't anywhere to go or anything to become. That's being 20.

There is nothing presidential in Devon Terrell's very entertaining portrayal of Barry (and he is only called Barry in this film—Barack Obama is too grand and complicated a name for this easygoing fellow). Yes, he does drugs, drinks a bit, fucks around, but not once do we see these as a cloud of transgressions that threatens to lead a promising young man down the path to disaster. We never fear he might open the wrong door or run with the wrong crowd. That sort of thing is found in biopics that, for the edification of the audience, show the steps a person took to become rich or famous (studied hard, fell in love with the right man or woman, never lost sight of his/her one goal, and so on). If you want to learn what you must do to become the president of the United States of America, Barry is not the film for you. Though we do easily recognize Obama's manner of speaking and moving in Terrell's performance, Barry is very much his own person. Anything can happen to him, and he can do whatever he wants because he is not trying to make history.

In one scene, he almost gets shot by a drug-addled man. In another scene, he is locked out of the apartment and spends the night in an alley. In another, he goes to a party in a project with a black friend who also studies at Columbia. They drink beer as they walk toward the building, which has broken elevators and stanky stairways. Obama is shown a room filled with junkies (he looks around and concurs things look pretty bad for these people). He then goes to a party and meets a beautiful black woman who lives on the eighth floor of the bleak building. They dance, they almost kiss, and Obama gets punched in the face by a big black guy. (The girl's boyfriend? Husband? Ex?) And that's about it. No lesson learned. The black woman he messed with? Nothing like Michelle Robinson, if that's what you are thinking. She wasn't smart or educated or in any way interesting. Barry was a little drunk, she was attractive, and they were having a good time dancing to good music. (Living in NYC at this time, 1981, Barry is exposed to the new art rising from the rubble of urban decay, hiphop.)

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This Barry is not the self-assured president. He's caught in between worlds. He was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia. His mother, played impeccably by Ashley Judd, is quite batty. He doesn't get along very well with the white male students, and the black people on the street do not connect with him. He is turned off by the black nationalists who call white women devil bitches. But he is vaguely drawn to mysterious Africa. He is also reading the classics of black American literature, and his black friends call him the Invisible Man. At school, he is studying political science, but he doesn't say the most original things in class. He is not popular. He can be a little cold. His new girlfriend has fallen in love with him, but he is not in love with her or her world.

How can Barry bring all these parts together into the person we know he will become? At this stage of his life, he just can't. Indeed, the very idea of going into politics does not yet exist in his thoughts. And the film makes it clear to us that this is the Obama it wants to explore, the Obama with no clue he is Obama.

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