As America has entered the next generation of politics, a time of uncertainty, several films have looked to the past to hunt for nostalgia and comfort of America’s 44th president’s earlier life. While Southside With You presents the love story of Barack and Michelle Obama, Barry takes a darker approach, aiming to uncover past president Barak Obama’s internal struggle as a young college student. Surely by no accident, both movies were released on the tail end of Obama’s presidency. While Southside With You presents the self-assured and confident Obama that we have seen in the past eight years and prior to his presidency, Barry delves into a side of the man that the world had not yet seen.
Initially released in December of 2016, Barry is a biopic of a young Barack Obama as he struggles with his identity and the future as a college junior. Barry (Devon Terrell), as the future president likes to be called, transfers from Occidental College to Columbia in 1981 to study political science, and faces internal struggles as he navigates a new life in New York City. Barry battles with uncertainty in many aspects of his life, making it a fitting film for the current uncertainty in today’s political sphere. Barry gives audiences a peek into the internal crises that Obama faced as a young black man attending a predominantly white school, like Columbia.
Director Vikram Gandhi presents a pensive film that takes on racial and class divides, not unlike what we are seeing in 2017 America. The title character struggles with racial identity, not only through the transnational racial divides, but also through his unique family history. We see Barry struggle to fit into any crowd. As a biracial person, raised by a white mother in Indonesia and Hawaii, Barry questions his whiteness and his blackness. We do not know who this character is because he is also unsure of his own identity. However, Barry is able to glide between two different worlds with surprising ease. One moment he is strolling the streets of Harlem, buying a W.E.B. Du Bois book; the next he is sitting in a political science class at Columbia debating the pillars of democracy. He socializes at parties with other Columbia students and goes to parties in the projects of Harlem. Barry is torn between two worlds, neither of which he is a full member.
The film, while set during Obama’s college years, has a powerful insight into larger social and political issues. Barry’s struggles are easily related to the political issues of 2017. His internal divide between these two worlds seems symbolic of the current polarized political climate. His struggle for a concrete identity continues throughout the film. It seems that there is some part of Barry that cannot be fulfilled because he is unable to fully identify himself. However, in the end, this void seems to be filled.
Barry has a slow realization about his own identity and his role in the world. He comes to recognize that he does not need to be more white, more black, or more biracial. He can simply be all of those things; Barry is a mix of everything, as is the United States. With a message of openness and inclusivity, both personally and interpersonally, Barry strikes at the core of the political issues that have plagued America for decades, and embraces the possibility of accepting a country with no specific identity, other than being a mix of everything and a place for everyone.