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December 28, 2016

Young Mr. Obama

On Dec. 16, Netflix released to streaming audiences the new film “Barry.” Purchased by the scarlet-hued home-entertainment colossus following its September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Barry” marked 2016’s second indie drama about the early years of Barack Hussein Obama, who, by the looks of it, poses a threat of displacing Abraham Lincoln (the subject of major motion pictures by John Ford, John Cromwell, and Steven Spielberg, not to mention his cameo in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”) as the preeminent American president of Hollywood’s imagination. The other Obama biopic this year was “Southside with You,” which had a theatrical run in August after a Sundance premiere.
In a final effort to comprehend the improbable journey of our outgoing president, I watched both movies back-to-back at home, in chronological order not of release but of historical timespan: the Obama of “Barry” is a college junior who has just transferred to Columbia University in 1981, and “Southside with You” picks up his story eight years later, with Barack now a Harvard Law student serving a summer internship at a corporate firm in Chicago. The willingness of each movie to restrict itself to a particular moment in Obama’s life, instead of unfurling a broad expanse of biography, seems to reflect not only an aesthetic inclination but an awareness of the project’s prematurity. Neither seeks to produce the definitive statement on its subject, whose legacy has yet to be fully defined, but both offer some tentative steps toward imagining Obama’s permanent place in popular culture—which is to say: the version of history that gets remembered.
For the main role, both movies cast talented unknowns, Devon Terrell and Parker Sawyers, who manage to put forth convincing Obama impersonations while also acting in the traditionally imaginative, character-creating sense. They’re both seen smoking cigarettes in important scenes—the habit has, despite Obama’s best efforts to hide it, become an iconic feature of the 44th president: an illicitly retrograde part of his coolness, and a disarming indication of a great man’s frailties and failings.
“Barry” is a character study centered on identity issues in a manner more common to novels—Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah”—than to movies, and is in some sense an immigrant story, despite Obama’s American birth. “Southside with You,” meanwhile, is a dialogue-centric two-hander that recalls Richard Linklater’s all-in-one-night romantic dramedy “Before Sunrise” (1995). As political biopics, they belong to separate subgenres: that of the leader-as-a-young-man story, exemplified by Walter Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004), and that of the frothy presidential anecdote extended to feature length, a category of film possibly invented as recently as 2012 with “Hyde Park on Hudson,” featuring Bill Murray as FDR.
In “Barry,” we watch a prickly, conflicted Obama navigate the overlapping economic, social, and racial spheres of New York City, his new home: the Ivy League university where the security guard always asks him (but not his white friends) for ID; the run-down streets of his off-campus housing, where for the first time he immerses himself in the pleasures of black community life; the Uptown streetball courts where he shrugs off his opponents’ trash talk; the Yale Club, where he shares an awkward dinner with the well-intentioned parents of his patrician girlfriend. A surprisingly clear-eyed story of a mixed-up boy’s experiments in integration and exile, it shows Obama’s problems, not his solution, except insofar as we can infer that Barry’s ability to enter a multitude of cultural milieus, without fully belonging to (or being subsumed by) any, will ultimately give him the tools to succeed as a politician of broad appeal, once the adolescent sting of his forever-outsider status has worn off.
Many of the details—from his tendency to carry around a copy of “Invisible Man” to his ambivalent “thank you” response to an “I love you”—are familiar from David Maraniss’s 2012 “Vanity Fair” article, “Becoming Obama,” which included diary entries from a former New York girlfriend who, at the time, lamented Obama’s “distance” and “wariness” in their relationship. The filmmaker Vikram Gandhi locates a contained drama of agitated uncertainty in these qualities of the Obama of 1981, when his imperturbable outward manner, overlaying an unresolved personal identity, was as much handicap as asset.
By contrast, “Southside with You” is primarily a charmer, a date movie about a date to the movies: specifically, Barack and Michelle’s first date, which brought them to the Art Institute of Chicago and then to a screening of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” It’s a flirtatiously unsuspenseful dance of will-they-or-won’t-they, fueled by Barack’s cocky determination and Michelle’s sensible reluctance (they’re coworkers, after all). Watching Michelle fall in love with Barack’s charisma and intellectual complexity allows audiences to relive their own experience of falling in love with Obama the politician, but writer/director Richard Tanne notices a hard edge within Obama’s late-twentysomething brashness, a remnant of the judgmental bitterness left over from his “Barry” days, which perhaps only Michelle’s firm wisdom can smooth out.
Tanne inserts, too, a scene in which Obama speaks at a meeting of black activists and concerned citizens, which supplies the movie’s political dimension. The film’s worst moment by far, Obama’s speech, though intended to showcase an early glimmer of his oratorical gifts, comes across now, after the grand failure of the Democrats in 2016, as an indictment of Obama’s centrism: hearing complaints that a white city council that has denied a proposal put forth by a black public housing development to build a community center for local kids, Barack condescendingly urges the angry residents to empathize with their opponents in city hall, to find the places where their goals might align instead of vilifying them as hopelessly uncooperative racists. The speech is not only tone-deaf —it also betrays what some see as a defining fault of the Obama presidency: an excess of faith in the possibility of consensus, which is to say an excess of faith in the goodness and reasonability of the opponents of liberal proposals.

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