This year gave us two films about Barack Obama, both intimate glimpses into who he was before he became the president of the United States. Southside With You, released in August, was about Michelle and Barack Obama’s first date, where they went to an ice parlor and to see Do The Right Thing. Barry, which was released through Netflix on Friday, explores Barack Obama’s life in 1981 as a college transfer student at Columbia University studying political science.
Back then, Obama didn’t even go by Barack, but by the nickname Barry. Instead of following Obama as he tries to figure out his path to politics, the film, which stars Australian newcomer Devon Terrell (who nails the accent), follows Barry as he struggles with his identity of being both black and white.
“I don’t really care about the celebrity of Barack Obama,” said Barry director Vikram Gandhi. “My goal is to really make it about Barry. Here’s somebody [where] you actually haven’t heard his story before. You just realize that the guy who’s president had this really intense background, that his story is more complicated than we ever imagined.”
We spoke with Gandhi about why it was important to make Barry, why he hopes Trump supporters will watch, and how he approached race and identity in the film.
Why did you make this film?
For personal reasons. I just related to a lot of the struggles of a young Barack Obama in New York in the 1980s, the experience of being a young person who’s from a multicultural background and identity. I think it’s a communal story, a universal story, and a very American story.
Why is it important right now?
Since the election, I think it becomes even more important because now those personal details are actually political ideas. [There’s] this conflict of a young man trying to figure out his identity in America and realizing that diversity actually makes him American—that, in the world we live in now, is a deeply political message. I think we need a little bit of hope, and this movie happens to have a little of that.
Aside from Barack Obama’s book Dreams From My Father, which is an obvious influence for the movie, where else did you get information to paint your film?
I read everything I could about that period of time. I listened to every speech I could where he referred to his relationship with his parents, his relationship to even just being black and his own experiences. I read articles and interviews with his ex-girlfriend, interviews with friends of his.
But I think, because it’s a visual medium, the best reference material were two speeches I saw when he was in his late 20s or early 30s on a book tour that he gave for Dreams from My Father. He not only discusses the issues that are in this film about race and identity, but you see him as a young man speaking in public [who is] not as confident, with some awkwardness, speaking kind of elliptically, in his head.
You could really see the essence of a young man that would one day become Barack Obama, but the person in the video that we saw was a different person, someone who was working through a lot of things, and extremely thoughtful. You would never look at that person and say, “That guy is a politician.” He might be a writer or an intellectual.
America’s issues with race aren’t simplistic. But often in movies with a mixed-raced protagonist finding their identity, the plot and ideas about race are oversimplified. How do you think you deferred this gaze in Barry?
I learned the term “microaggression” after making this movie. There’s so much about understanding race and the alienation that goes along with not fitting into any race through subtlety. There’s a scene in the movie where he goes to Harlem and he feels everyone’s eyes on him because he brought his white girlfriend. It’s unclear if people are staring at him or if it’s all in his own head. The essence of the sort of micro-level feelings and emotions that go along with alienation and race is not knowing if it’s the world or it’s you. It’s those little things that build up and build up and can’t be put into words. I felt I had the responsibility to help people empathize with what that experience is.
There are two scenes in the film that don’t appear in Dreams From My Father or aren’t talked about by President Obama as defining his experience, but are moments for Barry in the film that help him better understand the world. The first is the dinner scene with his girlfriend Charlotte’s parents. They are very liberal and open-minded, but also very elite and out-of-touch. Why was it important to include that?
His girlfriend’s family—they are the perfect family for an African-American kid like Barry to marry into or to be a part of. They are open-minded, they were a part of the civil rights movement. Yet…we have the father give him a five dollar bill in the bathroom [for mistaking him for a bathroom attendant] because he’s being altruistic and being like “I’m helping the person who works in the bathroom.” It’s not that these people are bad people—in fact they seem like great people in the film—yet there’s something that they can’t bridge a gap through and that alienation is what I wanted to show.
The other scene is when Barry’s college friend PJ, the black guy from the projects who’s in business school at Columbia, gives him a “safari tour” of the projects in Harlem.
The reason we wanted him to go to the projects here is because there’s a fascination and fetishization of your own heritage, you know? I’ve experienced that in going to India—I want[ed] to get to the realest, realest Indian experience. I’ve done it and, you take something from it and you realize maybe that’s not me or you can make [your own] decision of how to feel. I think a lot of young people, they want to discover that, they want to discover their roots and because Barry has an African father and a white mother from Kansas, African-American society isn’t actually his heritage, you know?
Right, and he grew up in Hawaii.
That’s not who he is. His father wasn’t someone who came from Harlem or experienced slavery in America, but the closest bridge for him to understand his identity is for him to go deep into the black experience in America. We have him in this “projects safari” because his classmate, who is a upwardly mobile kid from the projects who’s in business school, he doesn’t see why Barry would want to come to a poor neighborhood because the character Jason Mitchell [who plays PJ] is on his way out of the projects. But it’s really important for Barry to understand that because he’s searching for answers.
One of the most emotional moments is when PJ says to him, “This is government housing” after looking at the people shooting up heroin. This is how the government does our people…[it’s a] moment of realization that this is systemic. That’s one moment where we just wanted to hint to where he got this feeling of responsibility to society. Perhaps this exploration at that time in his life is where he got a lot of his drive to become a social leader.
But even in 1981, not all black people in Harlem were poor and lived in the projects. Do you think you gave a full picture of what it is like to be black in Harlem in the ‘80s, especially considering Barry was on a quest to learn what it meant to be “authentically” black in the film? What was your mindset when you were building these characters?
There’s a complicated thing between archetype and stereotype. We thought about like, “Do we need a strong black woman in this movie? Is that missing?” And you do that, but you do that out of fear to offend. There’s by no means the representation of black America in one scene in the projects, but if you look at the character PJ—he’s an unorthodox character, he’s an upwardly mobile guy from the projects who’s in business school…who also talks shit on the basketball court and fits in. He’s like a code switcher, he can be whoever he wants to be and swap roles. There’s all this subtly, so there isn’t just a two dimensional image.
I think it was important that Barry went to the projects because those projects are right next to Columbia. I went to the projects [when I studied at Columbia] and saw what was going on in the world in a real way. This is the economic outcome for part of the African-American community. For Barack Obama to have gone to the South Side of Chicago to help underprivileged people—that’s important to represent in the movie. We just tried to make the characters feel real and not stereotypes as much as possible.
What do you think Barry ultimately takes away from his experiences? What is this story trying to say?
I created this relationship with Saleem who is another outsider, the brown guy from Pakistan in New York in 1981. That’s rare. Looking at Saleem and comparing him to Barry is a great way of understanding Barry’s choices and decisions. They are both kind of the Invisible Man. Saleem gives up and says, “You know, we don’t belong here.” He’s an outsider, he’s going to try to get laid, he’s going to try to do drugs and that’s it, but he’s not really a part of society.
Barry takes the opposite direction and says that he wants to learn about himself so he can be a part of society. I think in some weird way Saleem is the only guy who can speak the truth without fear of saying something wrong to Barry. He’s the guy who can tell Barry “You’re not black enough” because he gets it. Saleem isn’t white enough or Pakistani enough, either.
Who do you want to watch Barry and what do you want the viewers to take away from the film?
Well, to be honest, right now I would really want Trump supporters to watch this so that they can understand the subtleties of being a person of color and how this presidency affects that relationship a lot of us have with America. How these values are the core of America and not just a side note—it’s actually the core of our democracy. I hope that this gives people a window into empathizing with this experience, with a different American experience.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled Vikram Gandhi’s last name. It has since been corrected.