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?

Play
‘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.
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Watch Ruchir's journey: A story that captures the impact of accessible technology

Accessible technology has the potential to change lives.

“Technology can be a great leveller”, affirms Ruchir Falodia, Social Media Manager, TATA CLiQ. Out of the many qualities that define Ruchir as a person, one that stands out is that he is an autodidact – a self-taught coder and lover of technology.

Ruchir’s story is one that humanises technology - it has always played the role of a supportive friend who would look beyond his visual impairment. A top ranker through school and college, Ruchir would scan course books and convert them to a format which could be read out to him (in the absence of e-books for school). He also developed a lot of his work ethos on the philosophy of Open Source software, having contributed to various open source projects. The access provided by Open Source, where users could take a source code, modify it and distribute their own versions of the program, attracted him because of the even footing it gave everyone.

That is why I like being in programming. Nobody cares if you are in a wheelchair. Whatever be your physical disability, you are equal with every other developer. If your code works, good. If it doesn’t, you’ll be told so.

— Ruchir.

Motivated by the objectivity that technology provided, Ruchir made it his career. Despite having earned degree in computer engineering and an MBA, friends and family feared his visual impairment would prove difficult to overcome in a work setting. But Ruchir, who doesn’t like quotas or the ‘special’ tag he is often labelled with, used technology to prove that differently abled persons can work on an equal footing.

As he delved deeper into the tech space, Ruchir realised that he sought to explore the human side of technology. A fan of Agatha Christie and other crime novels, he wanted to express himself through storytelling and steered his career towards branding and marketing – which he sees as another way to tell stories.

Ruchir, then, migrated to Mumbai for the next phase in his career. It was in the Maximum City that his belief in technology being the great leveller was reinforced. “The city’s infrastructure is a challenging one, Uber helped me navigate the city” says Ruchir. By using the VoiceOver features, Ruchir could call an Uber wherever he was and move around easily. He reached out to Uber to see if together they could spread the message of accessible technology. This partnership resulted in a video that captures the essence of Ruchir’s story: The World in Voices.

Play

It was important for Ruchir to get rid of the sympathetic lens through which others saw him. His story serves as a message of reassurance to other differently abled persons and abolishes some of the fears, doubts and prejudices present in families, friends, employers or colleagues.

To know more about Ruchir’s journey, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Uber and not by the Scroll editorial team.