Meet the Hippie, Weed-Smoking Young Obama
The impressive film Barry, premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, chronicles the early New York City years of future President Barack Obama.
In Barry, a richly nuanced telling of the early college days of President Barack Obama, that famously familiar voice pours out of newcomer Devon Terrell with such spot-on accuracy it’s easy to imagine the POTUS we know now as a wide-eyed twentysomething, soul-searching his way through his junior year at Columbia. Terrell’s is such a lived-in performance, it’s surprising to meet the 23-year-old star and hear an Australian accent tumble out with a timbre far removed from his onscreen alter ego.
Barry is the second terrific young Obama film of the year and Terrell, in only his second screen role to date, is one of the great new discoveries of this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Like Obama, Terrell was born in the States but moved abroad at an early age. He grew up in Perth, Australia, went to drama school in Sydney, and was discovered by Academy Award-winner Steve McQueen, who cast him as the lead in his HBO Codes of Conduct series.
The show never made it to air but serendipitously enough, Terrell recalls, the day that series got the axe he got the script for Barry. “I had such an emotional connection with it,” he told The Daily Beast on a bright afternoon in Toronto, glowing reviews still rolling in following the film’s world premiere. “They were just moments in his life. It wasn’t like, ‘This is the president.’ This is a young man you could call by any name. He just happens to be Barack Obama.”
Even if nobody predicted 2016 would usher in such a bounty in presidential speculative fiction, both Barry and Southside with You prove there’s room for more than one onscreen exploration of the outgoing president; one day they’ll certainly make for an intriguing double feature. Unlike the confident Chicago lawyer of Southside with You, the Barry of Barry, directed by Vikram Gandhi, is a little naïve and more than a little angsty, a mixed-race kid from Hawaii quietly waging a war of identity and belonging within himself during his first year in New York City.
Barry reverse-engineers the president we know today to find the young man he might have been in 1981. That makes for slice-of-life human moments as the soft-spoken new NYC resident, transferring from his first two years at Occidental, moves into a cheap pad with his wisecracking buddy Saleem (a hilarious and essential Avi Nash) and begins exploring the big new city. Barry gives us a chain-smoking, weed-partaking, frequently shirtless, basketball-hooping Obama who’d rather make out with his girlfriend than watch a political debate—and yet shades of the Obama we recognize radiate from within.
“At times it feels like a superhero origin story and I think we tend to believe he was born perfect, born a leader,” mused Terrell. “But I think he found it within himself. He had to ask all of those questions to then get to that point.”
Terrell says he never quite realized how much he resembled the young Obama, but poring over all manner of Obama lit, from his memoir Dreams from My Father to works by other writers, made him realize his dream role would be to play him. “It’s kind of weird! I just always hoped to portray him. He seems like such a massive canvas of a person because he comes across as not emotional but you can tell there’s an emotion going on within him,” Terrell explained.
He found profound parallels in Obama’s search for identity, the dominant theme of Adam Mansbach’s script. “Reading about him as a young man I thought, I have been through that,” he said. “My parents are mixed race. I had an American accent when I moved to Australia so I had to change it to fit the environment. You’re code-switching. When you’re 5 years old and you have an American accent the kids are like, ‘What’s going on?’ But I’d go back to America and have an Australian accent. I’d wonder, ‘Am I American?’”
The yearning to belong to different worlds, none of which seem to welcome him, provides some of the more wrenching moments of Barry. Terrell conveys Obama’s longing for acceptance from the African-American community he places himself discreetly around, haunting the basketball courts and the streets of Harlem, with exquisite understatement—and oftentimes, without saying a word. Gandhi gives him the breathing room to do so and fills out a capable ensemble around him including Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell, who’s excellent as a fellow African-American student figuring out how to balance where he comes from with where he wants to be.
The Barry of Barry is, curiously enough, an anti-political Obama who expresses cynicism and disillusionment for the presidency and the “system” at large. And yet he’s principled and fiercely idealistic, a voracious reader of W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison, getting more woke by the day even if his energies are consumed by wrestling with the absent father he doesn’t know how to speak to, and the awkward anxieties he feels for the mother he loves (Ashley Judd) but doesn’t quite understand.
Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) plays Charlotte, the outspoken classmate, based on three of Obama’s real-life gal pals, who catches Barry’s attention with her passionate politics and steals his heart. In the film, it’s she who pushes Barry toward a politically active life and reflects back to him, for better or worse, the hang-ups over race that hold him hostage. But just like how Barry and others can’t place him in a “scene,” from the projects of Harlem bustling with faces darker than his to the campus where he’s routinely racially profiled by guards who don’t hassle the other students, he can’t get past Charlotte’s whiteness.
Reading the recollections of the real-life Charlottes helped Terrell inform his vision of who Obama might have been; after all, no one sees a man’s strengths and foibles quite like an ex-girlfriend. “I learned just as much from their take on them, from an outsider’s point of view. They’d never met someone who had to finish every thought eloquently, had to be so precise, was always so curious about life.”
After spending so much time in Barry’s shoes, Terrell grins nervously at the thought of the real Obama seeing his performance. “I am so scared of when that day comes,” he said, “because I think he’s an incredible, incredible man. But I hope he sees it and thinks that’s what his experience was. It would be a dream.”