clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In ‘Barry,’ Australian actor masters the nuances of a young Obama

Devon Terrell as 1980s college student Barack Obama in "Barry." | Netflix

Just a couple of months ago we had “Southside with You,” a fictionalized telling of a young Barack Obama’s first date with one Michelle Robinson in 1989.

Now comes “Barry,” a Netflix original take on an even younger Barack Obama’s experiences as a transfer student at Columbia University in the New York City of the early 1980s.

In a story set about eight years before “Southside,” the future POTUS is dabbling in the party scene, involved in a serious love affair with a white girl, grappling with his family history and just beginning to figure out his place in American society and what he wanted to do with his life.

If you told him he’d be president of the United States one day, he would have asked what you were smoking.

The Australian-raised actor Devon Terrell does a fine job of mimicking the vocal cadences of the 20-year-old Barack Obama. (Parker Sawyers’ performance in “Southside” was more sophisticated and layered, but that’s more of a compliment to Sawyers than a dis to Terrell. We believe this interpretation of the very young POTUS-to-be.)

In an excellent performance, Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”) plays Barry’s girlfriend Charlotte (a composite character), the Caucasian daughter of upper-middle-class parents (Jenna Elfman and Linus Roache) who are products of the ’60s and pride themselves on their liberalism — but are clearly not entirely comfortable with their daughter dating a black man.

Barry and Charlotte are in love, but their romance stands little chance against the reality of 1981. When Barry is in Charlotte’s world, he is literally the only black person in sight. When Charlotte is in Barry’s neighborhood, same thing. The simple act of walking down the street, almost any street, is fraught with potential conflict.

A number of supporting characters serve as semi-cliched, teaching-moment exemplars making an impression on Barry.

• There’s the white classmate who asks, “Why is it always about slavery?”

• There’s the campus security officer who immediately assumes a black man is a threat and can’t possibly be a student.

• There’s the older white man in the restroom who asks Barry for a paper towel and dismissively tosses a fiver at Barry, assuming Barry is a bathroom attendant.

On a subtler plane and in some truly inspired casting choices, Ashley Judd provides emotional depth as Barack’s mother, and Jason Mitchell (who deserved an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Easy-E in “Straight Outta Compton”) and Ellar Coltrane (who literally grew up onscreen in “Boyhood”) deliver stellar work as friends of Barry’s who remind of us of the multiple worlds he inhabits — and the multiple worlds he will have to navigate in the decades to come.

★★★

Netflix presents a film directed by Vikram Gandhi and written by Adam Mansbach. No MPAA rating. Running time: 104 minutes. Now showing on Netflix.