The Good: Good performances, Decent direction
The Bad: Tone, Aimless plot, Mediocre characters
The Basics: Barry somewhat vaguely explores the pressures Barack Obama faced as a young man when he moved to New York City to study at Columbia University.
As the sun sets (literally) on the Obama Administration, I realized that I had not watched any of the films (there were at least two released in 2016) based upon the life of Barack Obama. I think I had avoided watching films like Barry before now because I wanted to avoid my instant outrage if the art presented the Barack Obama character as a liberal firebrand (those of us who pay attention to politics knew from the beginning that he was far more of a centrist than a liberal). But, considering that I watched the mockumentary Donald Trump's The Art Of The Deal: The Movie (reviewed here!), I figured I ought to watch something that seriously attempted to present Barack Obama. I went with Barry, which was a Netflix Original Film released about a month ago.
It is important to note that this review is for Barry, as it stands on its own as a film; not the actual life of Barack Obama. As such, any commentary I make regarding this film is based entirely upon what appears in the movie, not anything to do with the actual historical persona of Barack Obama. While Barry might be based upon events in the life of Barack Obama, I make no assumptions as to knowing what aspects are real and what are not; the film is categorized as a drama, not a biography. As such, references from this point on the "Barry" or "Barack Obama" refer to the fictionalized version from the film Barry.
So, when I write that Barry Obama (he only goes by Barack for a single line at the end of the film) was an aimless youth who seemed to bring more conflict into his life than was inherent in his surroundings or in the people he encountered, I mean entirely that the Barry of Barry is so burdened.
In August, 1981, Barry arrives in New York City with a suitcase and a letter from his father, whom he only met once. After spending a night on the street, he tracks down his coke-using, womanizing friend Saleem and shortly thereafter gets squared away at Columbia University. In one of his classes, Barry meets Charlotte, a young woman who is charmed by him and takes him out dancing one night. The two start dating and hanging out to watch political events on television, though Barry makes a point of playing basketball and shopping from street vendors in Harlem.
Barry becomes conflicted when he learns that PJ, a young man he plays basketball with, also goes to Columbia. Soon, Barry finds himself torn between hanging out with Charlotte and learning about how people like PJ grow up in government housing. Barry seems very happy with Charlotte until he brings her to his neighborhood and later accompanies her to a wedding.
If the plot description to Barry seems like it descends into a rather vague, mushy description, such is the problem with the film. Barry is a character study, but the character is plagued by the issues he brings with him and it is hard to invest in the character. Barry is happy with Charlotte and Charlotte accepts him and actually loves him for his charm, intellect, and kindness. Barry, however, seems unwilling to commit because he does not know who he is. Barry makes ethnicity an issue in the relationship in a painfully inorganic way; he feels like he does not fit anywhere, so he makes himself not fit anywhere.
On the plus side, Barry illustrates very well how one's upbringing does not determine their outcome. Barry is aimless and does not know what he wants or what he believes; viewers know that this young man eventually becomes the President Of The United States Of America. While there is an obvious gap of years between the events of Barry and the historical person Barack Obama becomes, Barry is useful in implicitly illustrating that aimless young people can find their way.
Also well-executed in Barry is the acting. Anya Taylor-Joy is a scene-stealer in Barry as Charlotte. Taylor-Joy emotes well - especially in the scenes where her co-star, Devon Terrell plays cool and conflicted - and has moments where she explodes with charm. Jason Mitchell continues to illustrate the range that made him a powerhouse performance in Straight Outta Compton (reviewed here!) as PJ. Mitchell might be relegated to a supporting role, but he makes the most of it, reminding one instantly of a young Terrence Howard with the subtlety of his portrayal of PJ. Avi Nash easily steals the award for "Best Barack Obama Impersonation" in Barry as he effortlessly transitions from his Pakistani-English accent to a flawless impersonation of the future President!
Devon Terrell is good as Barry. Terrell has remarkable physical control to portray Barry in ways that are both new and awkward - characterizing well a youthful, pre-political Barry - and measured. There are moments, especially late in the film, where Terrell sets his jaw and those who have watched Barack Obama in debates will find it instantly familiar.
While Barry features nicely a character who walks into a world surrounded by smoking, drinking, and drugs, the film fails to make him compelling or engaging by the way it neglects the intellectual half of the character's development. There is a single scene, very early on, where Barry is in a class and participates (there is a later scene where Barry is in a lecture and walks out). The viewer is supposed to understand that Barry is smart by the fact that he reads a couple of books, got into Columbia at all, and dismantles the rather facile argument of a militant black street preacher. Barry fails to compellingly illustrate an emotional and intellectual conflict within the character; instead, Barry is characterized as a young man suffering deeply from father issues who applies an ethnic motive to everything he encounters.
That makes for a less compelling or universal narrative and a remarkably unsatisfying character journey for the title character, even if it is presented in a way that delivers a consistent mood of youthful uncertainty in an impressive way.
For other Netflix exclusive films, please check out my reviews of:
True Memoirs Of An International Assassin
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
The Fundamentals Of Caring
The Ridiculous 6
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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