If you’re resistant to the idea of uncritical movies about the life of Barack Obama released while he’s still in office, trust me, I’m with you. Even if you like Obama, the premise of Southside With You, a romance about Barack and Michelle’s first date, feels sort of like creepy, like cult of personality Stalin stuff. A biopic, a Citizen Kane-style takedown with a “Rosebud” moment (a la W), that I could understand. But a movie about the Obamas as young lovers? That just feels weirdly sycophantic, like maybe it took the “daddy” meme a little too far. I mean, he seems like a charming dude and all, but this is still an insanely powerful world leader who routinely orders drone strike executions we’re talking here.
It’s hard to ignore the Southside With You parallel when you hear about Barry, a movie written by Adam Mansbach and directed by Vice correspondent Vikram Gandhi, that depicts Barack Obama during his college days. Luckily, Barry is more about coming of age and exploring identity than it is the origin story of your best friend Barack Obama (not to mention that it has some wonderful performances). It’s about race, but more in a personal way than in a political one. Sure, there are probably better ways to explore race and identity than through a film about Obama, but the way Barry tells it, the tale of young Obama is so uniquely suited to explore these issues that you understand why they did it this way.
Devon Terrell plays Barry — his portrayal accurate enough as the proto-Barack that it’s recognizable, but not so much of a dead-on impression that it’s corny — in the days after Barry arrives in the racial cauldron of 1981 New York. (Ching ching! we journalists get a nickel every time we describe something as a “racial cauldron.”) Earnest, bookish, and always with a cigarette in his hand, Barry has arrived to attend Columbia University (where he transferred from Occidental in L.A.) and to try to figure out who he is. His first stop is to meet up with his buddy, Saleem (Avi Nash), a wise-cracking Indian dude who likes booze, girls, and cocaine.
Testing identities and figuring out who you are is true of almost any college kid, but it’s especially complicated for Barry. When a pretty white girl at a keg party asks where he’s from, Barry says “Hawaii, Indonesia, Kenya… all over,” really.
It seems slightly unbelievable to that he wouldn’t just say “Hawaii,” but the point is, Barry is a bit of a man without a country. He’s essentially been raised by his white mom (Ashley Judd) as white and middle class. Yet during discussions with his mostly-white classmates, he’s “expected to speak on behalf of all black people,” as he explains in a gripe to his roommate (played by Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood).
Meanwhile, to the black friends he’s started making on the basketball court, he’s just as much an outsider — a shy college boy just discovering his “blackness” like a baby horse on ice skates — manifested in his increasingly more assertive style of basketball. He’s befriended by a gregarious playground hustler played by Jason Mitchell (another captivating performance from the guy who played Eazy E in Straight Outta Compton — HIRE THIS DUDE), who nicknames him “Invisible Man” on account of the Ralph Ellison book he’s always reading. Eventually, he takes Barry to a hood party in a housing project to see how the other half lives. (Columbia is only a few blocks from Harlem.) Leading Barry through the housing project’s landmarks, like “broken elevator,” “pissy stairs” and “shooter room” (heroin addicts), Barry’s new friend tells him, “I just wanted you see how the government does our people.”
I imagined a Republican somewhere shouting “It’s subsidized housing! It’s not supposed to be The Ritz!” Nonetheless, it’s reasonably believable dialogue in that context, and the scene, like much of the movie, seems meant to communicate something about identity, rather than politics. The rest of the night goes… poorly. Obama doesn’t quite fit in at the college keg party, he doesn’t quite fit in at the housing project party, and he doesn’t quite fit in with his white girlfriend’s parents at the Yale Club.
Oh right, Barry has a white girlfriend (Anya Taylor-Joy, previously of The Witch) whose parents take them to eat to the Yale Club (this plot point entirely fictional, I’m pretty sure). When a guy in the bathroom mistakes Barry for the help, you think it’s going to be a whole cliché, after-school special kind of a thing, with disapproving parents and young Barack feeling his blackness for the first time. Instead, her dad (Linus Roache) turns out to be an ex-lawyer for the radical left. Both parents are rich ex-hippies (her mom is played by Jenna Elfman) trying to find their place in Reagan’s America. Barry charms them with his openness, though it has an air of phoniness, where we see him briefly as a young politician.
In this scene as in the rest of the film, Barry‘s take on race, class, and identity is much subtler and more nuanced than you’d expect. The movie has a way of feigning towards something obvious, matching your lowest expectation, and then hitting you with something much more complex and ethereal. It doesn’t always ring true, but it’s almost always compelling.