Image Credit: Netflix
Barry (2016) is a coming of age story where the audience already knows the protagonist will overcome his struggle. A young Barrack Obama – played by newcomer Devon Terrell, is not yet the person we know he will become. Instead, we are introduced to Barry, a 20 year old Columbia University transfer student struggling with identity and belonging. This unconventional bildungsroman opens a dialogue with the viewer of what it means to find an authentic self. It’s a moody film especially relevant for a society struggling with its racial identity.
Throughout the film, Barry is repeatedly asked ‘Where are you from?’ His inability to answer this question serves as the plot’s anchor. Who is this young university student? What does it mean to be black? Am I the only person struggling with identity? Inspired by a short chapter in Obama’s deeply thoughtful memoir ‘Dreams From My Father’, Director Vikram Gandhi crafts an adolescent wilderness with anxiety spilling into every scene.
As Barry struggles to negotiate between his white and black worlds he searches for an uncomplicated identity. The impediments Barry faces in his search for a resolution to his inner conflict provide philosophical education. His white college girlfriend Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy) provides a mature approach to an interracial relationship and embraces challenging stereotypes. Yet she’s blind to the pressure Barry has from the black community. Part of Obama’s sense of legitimacy comes from a devotion to his future black wife, the brilliant Michelle Obama. In the streets of 1981 New York, you can sense the feeling of betrayal from the crowd – these disapproving stares cripple Barry.
Uncertainly radiates throughout the film as Barry lacks the self-confidence to be comfortable in his own skin. After leaving a student party for its obnoxious masculine fraternity white-boy energy Barry equally rejects his time in Harlem, saying “It’s not my scene”. The best moments come from when Barry and Saleem (Avi Nash), a charismatic, cocaine-fuelled Indian friend, ruminate on the challenges of being accepted. A musk of cigarettes, and marijuana fills the scene as these lonely figures find brotherhood in their isolation.
Gandhi is unafraid to let these heavy scenes linger with an eerie silence for the audience. For a film with a running time approaching two hours, there is an almost criminal lack of dialogue. Instead, our eyes are opened to the microaggressions, references to black intellectual thought (the works of W.E.B Du Bois and Ralph Ellison make a cameo appearance), and the pressure to confront or conform to the persona society expects from us. The gradual evolution of Barry into Barrack ultimately centres on how he negotiates conflicting societal expectations.
Barry himself acts as a visual metaphor for the conflict between the black and white communities. His mixed-race heritage and middle-class upbringing threatens to isolate him. The idea that race, identity or culture are diametrically opposing concepts is all consuming and deeply poisonous. Similarly, at lunch his quintessential white friend Will (Ellar Coltrane) says “but you’re half white. You can fit in anywhere” to which Barry recoils. The unsaid issue is that Barry is neither white nor black and ironically doesn’t feel like he can fit in anywhere. However, his ability to reconcile opposing concepts and be himself shows this is a story about personal growth. Barry is the person we are before we become who we need to be.
Watching it feels like Barry could have a flat character arc. His arguments with Charlotte and Salaam at times make them more interesting characters as they poke fun at racial stereotypes and tease Barry for his aloof nature. Yet when compared to Will and PJ (Jason Mitchell) a started-at-the-bottom-now-I’m-here type basketball buddy, it's clear Barry must forge his own way.
In an age of intersectionality, Barry shows the soul-searching required to internally overcome the division and exclusion in our society. This film perfectly depicts how subtle racism affects our generation today. Gandhi has lovingly created an awkward film about how we find our authentic selves in an uneasy world. It provides a unique insight into identity and belonging in the wilderness of our youth. The great promise of Barry is hope.