Netflix film Barry sheds light on the years that shaped Barack Obama’s life

The film begins in the autumn of 1981 when “Barry” (played by Devon Terrell), as he was known to his friends, arrives at New York’s Columbia University as a 19-year-old transfer student.

Devon Terrell as Barack Obama in Barry. AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

There have been many paths to the White House over the centuries, but few as diverse or demanding as the one taken by Barack Obama. Now a new Netflix movie, Barry, explores the college days that raised his consciousness and shaped him into presidential material.

Obama’s childhood was unusual, to say the least. He grew up in Hawaii, Jakarta and California, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansas-born American mother.

The film begins in the autumn of 1981 when “Barry” (played by Devon Terrell), as he was known to his friends, arrives at New York’s Columbia University as a 19-year-old transfer student.

As the only black student in most of his classes, and with a white girlfriend, Obama finds himself thrust into a racially fraught and crime-ridden New York City, while struggling to maintain increasingly strained relationships with his mother Ann (Ashley Judd), his estranged father, Barack Obama Sr, and his classmates. Glaring issues of inequality force him to confront questions surrounding his own mixed heritage and identity.

Obama’s experiences during that pivotal school year begin to shape his views on race, the government and what it means to be an American.

"Barry is the story of a young man grappling with those same issues that his country, and arguably the world, are still coming to terms with 35 years later," says American director Vikram Gandhi. Despite its low budget, Barry engages, thanks to the filmmaker's assured hand and a compelling script from author, and first-time screenwriter, Adam Mansbach, who is renowned for writing about race in America.

“Obama lived on 109th street when he was at Columbia, and I actually lived in the building right next door to where he’d been,” says Gandhi. “I imagined that the time he spent at Columbia must have been a pivotal time in his life. It was right after that he decided to become a community organiser. It was also the time that his father died. So that was where the genesis for Barry came from.”

Casting the central title role was no easy task.

“We needed to find an actor talented enough to embody the spirit and passion of Barack Obama,” says producer Teddy Schwarzman, “while bringing both a youthful interpretation to what he was like as a teenager and at all costs avoiding stereotype or impersonation”.

They found their man in relatively unknown Australian actor, Devon Terrell. Barry is his first feature-film credit.

“Terrell over-delivered in every possible respect,” says Schwarzman. “He’s nothing short of phenomenal in the movie and his level of discipline in performing the role was a source of inspiration on set.”

Perfecting that performance took time. “I had three weeks of very intense prep,” says Terrell, “because we didn’t know where we wanted to land the voice or his mannerisms, but we knew he had specific things that were very distinct to him”.

“It was very much a process of just trying to find the truth in every moment and trusting that all the homework that we did in terms of the cadence and his mannerisms would come out.”

After Barry's world premiere in September at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Netflix snapped up the global rights. Reviews have been generally positive, with an 86 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 73 per cent on Metacritic.

“Going to college in New York is this time where you can be blown away by how big the world is, how vast the world is,” says Gandhi. “It’s a time when you’re trying to figure out who you are. I think that’s a thread that comes up for a lot of young people who are going through college.

“And for a kid whose life is like Barack Obama’s, who grew up in Hawaii, a mixed-race kid, lived in Indonesia, never knew his father, then moved to a Dominican block five blocks from an Ivy League university and 10 blocks from Harlem, I realised that he must have had an amazing experience in New York.”

• Barry is available now on Netflix