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Barry: Obama, The College Years

Director Vikram Gandhi's nuanced portrait of the young Barack Obama is one of the best films of the year

Vikram Gandhi's phenomenal Barry, a fictionalized biopic of Barack Obama's first year at Columbia now playing on Netflix, opens with the 20-year-old student chain-smoking on a plane as it descends into Manhattan, his new home. It's 1981. Cigarettes won't be banned on planes for a decade, around the time Barack will meet and marry Michelle. That man doesn't yet exist. Barry hasn't embraced his future — he hasn't even embraced his own name. The flight lands. He gets on the subway. He gets lost in Harlem back when tagged-up, drugged-out, boombox-blasting New York still roiled like The Warriors. Barry's not the kind of guy who asks for directions. He quietly takes in the chaos, his chin up and his face calm and curious. Then a car nearly runs him over and our future president blurts his first word: "Shit!"

First-time actor Devon Terrell, an Australian, nails that Obama staccato. His voice is soft, firm, and controlled, the words laid out like speed bumps covered in velvet. Even back then, he sounded like a cartoon. When his friend Saleem (Avi Nash), a club-hopping drunk, mockingly imitates him, he lowers his voice and swaggers, "The trick is to sound just white enough." Barry stares him down. "Fuck you, Saleem."

Impersonation isn't Terrell and Gandhi's goal. They don't want to show us the Obama we know. They scrape away the weight of destiny to reveal the kid who can't even answer the question, "Where are you from?" Hawaii? Jakarta? Los Angeles? The biracial brainiac didn't blend there, and he doesn't blend here. "You can fit in anywhere!" his white roommate (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane) beams. "I fit in nowhere," Barry insists. To the broke guys on his block, he's "College Boy" — the rich-looking dude they only talk to to bum cigarettes, even though he's as poor as they are. And on campus, he's the only black student in four of his five classes. He's too nerdy to hang at the projects without his friend PJ (Jason Mitchell of Straight Outta Compton, fantastic as always) escorting him through the hallways like a tourist, and he's awkward boozing it up with the Young Reaganites, all poised to conquer Wall Street after graduation.

"This isn't my scene," he admits to a cute white girl named Charlotte (The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy, clear-eyed and intelligent). So she drags him to a different one, a new wave club where he dances to The B-52s. (The soundtrack bumps with early-'80s best-forgotten hits like Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat," which lent its groove to De La Soul's "Buddy.") We've had lots of coming-of-age films where the protagonist waits for the world to realize they're special. They celebrate individuality over everything else. "Just be yourself!" they bleat, as though there's no need to grow.

But Barry is about someone trying — and often failing — to fuse to any group that will have him. He uses charm like a chisel. He's always hacking into people's armor to convince them he belongs, whether it's convincing strangers at a frat party to swill shots or talking W.E.B. Du Bois with the paperback salesman on the street. The Barry who plays basketball at the Columbia gym isn't the same Barry who dunks on dudes at the neighborhood court. And the Barry whom Charlotte falls in love with over beers and Chinese takeout isn't this blustering phony who tries to win over her mom and dad by bragging that his father went to Harvard. Why is he acting like her liberal parents might be racist? She thinks he's paranoid. He thinks she's blind. They're both right.

Gandhi's astonishingly dimensional examination of racial conflict recalls Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, with one key difference. Lee loves watching hotheads explode; Gandhi's fight boils under the deceptively cool surface of a man who rarely raises his voice. Terrell's Obama barely reacts to insults. We see him notice, say, the street corner cologne salesman who sees him with Charlotte and presses him to buy a scent "the sisters" will like. He smiles. Then he quietly files the jab away like a scientific observation. Barry's war is with himself. How can he expect people to accept him, a half-Kenyan/half-Kansan, when he's uncomfortable with who he is? And how progressive is he to think life would be easier without a white girl on his arm?

Barry's questions are powerful whether asked by a future president or a future janitor. The script is great no matter who it's about — it's just that fewer curiosity-seekers would give it a watch were it about someone else. Even Obama's own memoir, Dreams from My Father, realizes the power of fiction. Charlotte is based on an unnamed ex Obama understatedly called "my friend," and then later admitted was really three girlfriends combined into one. In one chapter, Obama wrote this about visiting her wealthy Connecticut home, decorated with pictures of rich white men: "Standing in that room, I realized that our two worlds, my friend’s and mine, were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany. And I knew that if we stayed together I’d eventually live in hers." So he had to leave.

That ex-girlfriend recognized herself and published her own diary about dating Obama. "I feel that you carefully filter everything in your mind and heart — legitimate, admirable, really — a strength, a necessity in terms of some kind of integrity," she wrote, as though writing to him. "I'm still left with this feeling of ... a bit of a wall — the veil." She knew what his small smile meant — and what it hid.

They broke up, and we know Barry and Charlotte will break up, too. She has the same brunette hair, round cheeks, and obsession with exotic cultures as his mother Ann (Ashley Judd), whom young Obama still dismisses as a naive, man-crazy embarrassment. What if Charlotte is doing the same thing? Their doomed romance hits us like a punch to the gut. But even though Barry is a bad boyfriend, we know he'll grow up to be a decent man and a great husband. Chalk that up to hindsight, but even his real-life ex predicted it. In her journal, she dreamed up the woman he should date: "That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!" Obama found her. To appreciate a happy ending, you must recognize the difficult path.