Devon Terrell and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) star in this biopic about the young Barack Obama’s college days in New York City.
As President Barack Obama's term draws to a close, filmmakers are looking back. What makes Barry exceptional is that it looks back not just on Obama's presidential run, his years in the Senate, or even his early career. The film takes us all the way back to Obama's junior year at Columbia University. What it reveals about Obama in 1981 could not be of more relevance to America in 2016.
Twenty-year-old Barry (Devon Terrell) arrives in a New York City where turf wars pervade every milieu, from the basketball courts to the university campus where he is bullied by police on his first night. He starts dating a white woman from his political science class. He attends a party in a Harlem housing project. With his Kenyan father and Kansas-born mother, Barry should be able to slip between racially coded camps. Instead, he feels like he doesn't belong anywhere.
Rather than hammer home its themes of racial tension and ambivalence, Barry immerses us in its protagonist's experience. Adam Mansbach's script and Vikram Gandhi's direction consistently show rather than tell. And Terrell lets us see Barry's inner frustration mounting — even as the young man learns to exercise the external neutrality that will prove so useful later in his life.
In one of many scenes in which he's asked where he's from, Barry outlines his Honolulu-Jakarta-California trajectory and waits for the usual startled reply. Instead, his interlocutor tells him, "That makes you American."
Barry is the story of a young man searching. It just so happens that what he's searching for in this film is the very sense of diversity and acceptance that his country is still trying to find 35 years later.