Like many of us, Netflix's new film about Barack Obama can't make up its mind about the presidentby Lucinda Smyth / December 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
As Barack Obama nears the end of his final term as US President, and a toupee-shaped cloud hangs over the future of American politics, his legacy seems uncertain. Obama has been disappointing to those supporters expecting a bit more “audacity of hope.” He has failed to deliver on a number of his promises, including better gun control and closing Guantanamo; his foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, is hardly worth boasting about. Turning away from the world of legislative politics, however, it is tempting to see Obama’s personality as the embodiment of hope. He was the first black president in an often painfully divided nation. He gave great speeches. He sang Al Green.
Enter Barry – Netflix’s new docudrama about Obama’s year studying law at Columbia University in 1981. Directed by Vikram Gandhi, the film seems set on proving that Obama was a “different kind of president,” who deserves a different kind of presidential film. A far cry from Oliver Stone’s grim-faced epics JFK or Nixon, Barry has an intimate feel. Its protagonist (Barack, or Barry as he was known then) is a chain-smoking, flares-wearing, disco-dancing know-it-all. He knocks back rum shots, chats up sorority girls, and gets high with his Pakistani roommate Saleem (Avi Nash).
For all the fun, however, Barry’s experience of Columbia is ultimately unromantic. His biracial background makes him feel alienated from both the pop-collared boys on his law course, and the black students he plays basketball with. Nicknamed “The Invisible Man” because of his loner status (with a nod to Ralph Ellison), at one point he glumly reflects: “Jack Kerouac went here, man. Allen Ginsberg, Paul Robeson… Where’s that scene?” His interlocutor replies: “Dead.” At the centre of the film is Barry’s struggle to find a group, and come terms with his racial identity.
Obama is not only a prominent politician, but the author of two bestselling autobiographies, including Dreams from my Father. As such, the issue of source material hangs heavy in the air, and every piece of corny dialogue, and every far-fetched event, invites a series of questions: is this taken from Obama’s autobiography? If so, which one? If not, is it based on rumour, or has it been completely made up?
While there is a clear cross-over with his 1995 autobiography (extracts from Obama’s father’s letters are…