Film preview

Before Barack Obama, there was ‘Barry’, basketball and romance

Vikram Gandhi’s biopic for Netflix focuses on Obama’s formative years at Columbia University in the early 1980s.

Barry is at a party, and his youth, intelligence and charm are not going unnoticed. A trans-sexual comes up to him and says, “Hey baby, you’re adorable. Do you like to party?” Barry pauses, neither accepting nor rejecting the overture. “Define party,” he says.

Vikram Gandhi’s biopic Barry is about the thoughtful young man who came before Barack Obama. The Netflix production, which will air from December 16, is filled with seemingly fleeting but eventually significant actions and encounters that shape the future President of the United States of America. Barry traces the period between 1981 and ’83 when Obama was studying political science at Columbia University in New York City. The mixed-race student (beautifully played by Devon Terrell) must have been beset by several doubts and internal debates, but one thought dominates Adam Mansbach’s absorbing screenplay: am I black or am I white?

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‘Barry’.

The race question hangs over Barry’s affair with Charlotte (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a wealthy white classmate. Barry is the second Obama biopic in a year to focus on the Democrat leader’s love life after Southside With You. Richad Tanne’s Southside With You, which was released in American cinemas in August, focussed on Obama’s first date with Michelle, his future wife, in 1989.

Charlotte is a composite of some of Obama’s white girlfriends during college. Barry slips easily into several diverse social circles, and has easygoing friendships with his Pakistani joint-living buddy Saleem (Avi Nash) and his black basketball playing friend (Jason Mitchell), but the relationship with Charlotte becomes a source of personal conflict.

Devon Terrell and Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘Barry’.
Devon Terrell and Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘Barry’.

Gandhi has previously directed the documentary Kumaré (2011), in which he impersonates a Hindu guru and sets up a cult in Arizona, as well as produced documentaries for the HBO series Vice. Born in America to Indian parents, the 38-year-old filmmaker was particularly interested in Obama’s college years in NYC. “I was just trying to find out who was this kid who went on to become the president later,” Gandhi said in a telephone interview. “You see the kid in this phase of his life where he is trying to figure out who he is.”

Since Gandhi was born and raised in NYC, the story had added resonance for the filmmaker. “New York for any young man is a place to open your eyes and see what the possibilities are and where you belong,” Gandhi said. “So many moments in the film have also come from my memories of myself when I was that age.”

Research for the 104-minute film involved revisiting information on Obama in the public domain, his own writings, news articles and tapes of his early book tours, and interviews with people who knew him during the his NYC period. “We got details down to the fact that he ate raisins, liked peanut sauce a lot, and played basketball,” Gandhi said. The life-altering experiences in the film include basketball games, Barry’s purchase of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, about an African-American man’s experiences with racism, and a party in Harlem that is meant to introduce him to a different kind of black experience.

Devon Terrell in ‘Barry’.
Devon Terrell in ‘Barry’.

Devon Terrell has Obama’s deliberate air, perfectly formed sentences, keen gaze and broad smile down pat. The performance is not mere impersonation, however. “I didn’t want an impersonator, and though Devon did look enough like Obama to be eligible, I wanted him to sound like Barack Obama,” Gandhi said. It helped that Terrell’s own background is a lot like Obama’s, which includes stretches in America, Hawaii and Indonesia. “Devon was born to an African-American father and an Anglo-Indian mother and grew up in Perth in Australia,” Gandhi said. “He too has a mixed race background and he didn’t fit in with white people, black people or Indians. I drew a lot from who Devon was for the film.” Gandhi created a “territory for Devon to stay within for 24 hours”, he said. The actor wore a Columbia University sweatshirt and lived in NYC, like the character.

Apart from being shown all over the world on Netflix, Barry will have a limited theatrical run in NYC and Los Angeles. It will be released on the same day as Rogue One, the Star Wars spin-off movie. “The film has the potential to be seen in 80 million homes, and it hard to speculate what a foreign audience will find in it,” Gandhi said. “It will be out on the same day as Rogue One, and it can be the film that people will watch if they don’t get to watch the Star Wars movie.”

Vikram Gandhi.
Vikram Gandhi.
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