There’s a scene in Dreams From My Father, the memoir of Barack Obama, that illuminates how the future president struggled to feel at home in white America. Obama, 22, has paid a visit to the family estate of his white girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, 25. It’s a beautiful autumn day in Norfolk, Connecticut, and, after traipsing about the foliage-strewn woods, he finds himself in the family library. There, he observes an assemblage of photographs depicting his lover’s grandfather, a wealthy man of great import, posing with presidents, foreign dignitaries, and titans of industry.
“Standing in that room, I realized that our two worlds, my friend’s and mine, were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany,” wrote Obama. “And I knew that if we stayed together I’d eventually live in hers. After all, I’d been doing it most of my life. Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider.”
That push-pull between these two sides of Obama, white and black, is explored in the new film Barry, now streaming on Netflix. Directed by Vikram Gandhi, it dramatizes the years Obama (played by Devon Terrell) spent at Columbia University in 1981 New York City.
For the uninitiated, Obama transferred to Columbia from Occidental College, entering as a junior. He lived with his pal, a cocaine-snorting, skirt-chasing Pakistani named Sohale Siddiqi (in the film he is called “Saleem”) at a dingy apartment on West 109th Street in Harlem. As Siddiqi recalled to The Guardian, Obama “was lighthearted and fun-loving for the first half of our cohabitation and grew serious later.”The film opens at this personality crossroads, with a meditative Obama stalking about gritty NYC, a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man tucked under his arm. He feels trapped in a sort of racial and cultural purgatory, augmented by the film’s hazy, dreamlike aesthetic.
“He is emo,” Gandhi tells The Daily Beast. “You take an icon, and they’re based on graphic lines. What I wanted to do was the Gerhard Richter version of the icon: the blurry version. Everyone’s life during that time is a little bit blurry, maybe because of drinking and smoking for Obama, but that’s why there’s a bit of blur in it. The lines in this movie aren’t supposed to be rigid.”
Gandhi, a regular correspondent for Vice, initially envisioned Barry as a TV miniseries or a cartoon in the vein of The Boondocks. He developed the idea around 2012, at the time of Obama’s reelection, jotting down notes from his memoirs. Eventually, Gandhi reached out to his former Columbia classmate Adam Mansbach, known for his bestselling children’s book Go the F*ck to Sleep. The two agreed it should be a feature film and collaborated on the screenplay.
Most of the action in Barry focuses on Obama’s relationship with “Charlotte” (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy), a white woman from a well-heeled Connecticut family. The two meet outside of a frat party and before you can scream GOBAMA! are breaking it down at a caliginous downtown nightclub filled with hip-hop, trans women, and SAMO tags on the walls. Obama and Charlotte fall in love, but he is soon consumed by his own naggings sense of self-awareness. He feels pangs of judgment as they feast on soul food at Sylvia’s in Harlem, and servile when he dines at a five-star restaurant with Charlotte’s well-meaning white parents. In one particularly overcooked sequence, a sidewalk fragrance salesman witnesses the mixed couple and recommends Barry a scent that “attracts the sistas.”
Barry posits that Obama’s frustrated romances with white women served as the springboard to his racial awakening—which, according to his autobiography, is semi-true—but largely ignores the role black pride played in the process. We are offered brief glimpses of Obama complaining to his white mother (Ashley Judd) about his feeling that, “Every time I open my mouth in class, it’s like I’m supposed to speak on behalf of all black people,” and his confession to an ex-roommate (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane): “I fit in nowhere.” Barry’s friendship with a black business-school student from the projects of Harlem (Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell), meant to represent his failure to fit in among streetwise African-Americans, feels half-baked.
What Barry does surprisingly well, however, is portray the feelings of alienation and isolation that come with being a mixed-race youth. Barry is reserved—callow, even—and Terrell captures his inner turmoil with quiet grace. Gandhi says he wanted to make a “universal” film about what it’s like to grow up mixed-race in America, so he declined to reach out to any of Obama’s real-life friends or exes during his Columbia years.“I didn’t go to the White House, I didn’t go to the girlfriends. I didn’t go to them because it didn’t feel like it was necessary,” he says. “I wanted to make a universal story about a kid named Barry, and didn’t want to be obsessed with figuring out the causality of who this person was, and then start turning this into a historical document about his life. I wanted this to be based on the emotions he was experiencing, and then use that as the core. His whole book is about his struggle to figure out who he is.”
“It’s not a political movie,” he adds. “It’s a film about his emotional struggle. But now, in a world where there are white nationalists popping up, the biracial experience is political.”
Gandhi saw more than 100 actors before he landed on Terrell, a handsome 24-year-old Australian. He’d managed to see the actor in the pilot to HBO’s Codes of Conduct, a Steve McQueen series that never made it to air, and was impressed by his work. Plus, as an Aussie, Terrell knows what it’s like to be a fish out of water in New York City. Pre-production for Barry began in January, and it was shot over 25 days in April at budget of “over $3 million.”
But just as the film was entering the prep stage, the Obamas’ first-date movie, Southside With You, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Thankfully, Gandhi’s producers felt that the two movies tackled decidedly different terrain.
“It was stressful in the beginning, but afterwards I didn’t care,” says Gandhi. “And to be honest, if that movie wasn’t about Barack Obama, I probably wouldn’t see it because I don’t really want to see that movie—the date movie. I love Richard Linklater, but I just don’t get those movies.”
Barry culminates in a scene at Charlotte’s sister’s wedding, in a country club that looks an awful lot like the White House (intentionally so, of course). There, young Obama’s feelings toward Charlotte, and his place in the world she inhabits, become crystal clear. “We show him entering the final cocoon before becoming the person he is,” says Gandhi. “There’s a sense of self-assurance and rebirth.”
This country club sequence was no doubt inspired by Obama’s visit to Genevieve Cook’s family estate. David Maraniss’s biography Barack Obama: The Story contains excerpts of some of Cook’s journal entries while she was dating Obama. In one of her screeds, she tries her best to envision Obama’s ideal woman. “I can’t help thinking that what he would really want, be powerfully drawn to, was a woman, very strong, very upright, a fighter, a laugher, well-experienced—a black woman I keep seeing her as.”
Thank God he found her.