‘Barry’: Vikram Gandhi’s Film on Barack Obama Should Not Be Missed

This biopic on Barack Obama’s early years in college by Vikram Gandhi is a must watch.

3 min read
Devon Terrell in and as <i>Barry. </i>

Film: Barry
Cast: Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy
Director: Vikram Gandhi

Let’s puff up our chests with pride.This year Ritesh Batra directed two films featuring a formidable Western cast  of Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Charlotte Rampling, Jim Broadbent, etc. And now another director of Indian origin, Vikram Gandhi, helms a bio-pic , released on Netflix, on Barack Obama’s student days at Columbia University.

Devon Terrell who plays the young Barack Obama with director Vikram Gandhi. (Photo courtesy: Twitter)
Devon Terrell who plays the young Barack Obama with director Vikram Gandhi. (Photo courtesy: Twitter)

In both cases the directors’ cultural identity is completely invisible in his work. Barry in fact is a remarkably unostentatious look at a life that defies colour schemes and scoffs at the rigours of racism. The struggle, as shown, in the film on the serene campus of one of the most beautiful educational universities in the world, is almost completely internal and unvarnished.

As the young Obama, Devon Terrell brings a radiant grace to his part. His handsome matinee-idol looks do not come in the way of  his portrayal of a man who was born to rule at a time, the 1980s, when African-Americans were beginning to emerge as  a cultural force to reckon with.

Prudently the narrative steers clear of demonstrating unreasonable levels of racism in the narrative. There are colour prejudices everywhere. But they are don’t overpower the narrative. Nor are they used to create irrelevant empathy for the protagonist. We often feel the young Obama is isolated not so much by extraneous circumstances as by his own sense of uniqueness in a posh institution where students of African origin were a rarity in the 1980s.

A still from <i>Barry.&nbsp;</i>
A still from Barry. 

Uniquely, there is very little drama on screen. Director Gandhi curbs the tendency to embellish  the narrative with flourishes and flamboyance even a  life as historical as Obama’s was destined to be. Looking at Devon Terrell’s fluent graceful but laid back portrayal of the young Obama we get a vivid glimpse into the tranquil soul of a future world leader who just happens to be a cool dude.

Devon plays young Obama as a still pool of water running deep and secreting turbulence within.  It’s a performance of enormous accomplishment , more so than it outwardly appears to be. Towards the end  of the film there is a sequence in a bar during a wedding where Barry Obama chooses to tell two black bartenders whom he has just met, that his father has just died in Kenya. Moments such as these are played as songs tuned to the key of life…no rise and fall of dramatic music, no emotionally manipulative props, just….life, as played at the lowest most accessible ebb.

A still from <i>Barry.</i>
A still from Barry.

Sensibly, director Gandhi and his screenwriter Adam Mansbach seek out a centre to  young Obama’s Colombian campus journey in a love story between the young conflicted Obama and a spunky rich white aristocratic girl Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy). Again, the relationship is stripped of bravado and melodrama.

A lot of the racial tensions remains muted and unspoken but ultimately a vivid reality in this gently sketched biopic of a global leader whose mixed parentage proved to be more an asset than an encumbrance.

Freed of homilies and liberated of isms, Barry is a tender ode to adventurous youth in those formative exploratory years when the young try find their bearings. Look out for an Indian actor named Avi Nash playing Barry’s forever-high-on-life-and-other-substances Pakistani room mate.

Barry is a film where nothing much seems to happen. It doesn’t strive to grab our attention. It simply claims our undivided attention by its graceful attitude to life and politics.

Rating: 3 and a half Quints

You can watch the trailer of Barry here:

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