Even before he won the 2008 presidential election, there was already talk of making a movie chronicling the life of Barack Hussein Obama.
The first to discuss such a film was Tyler Perry, who, in 2008, said that he was inspired to make a film about Obama and his relationship with his wife, Michelle Obama. Perry said that he sought to cast the likes of Angela Bassett and Denzel Washington in the film. Through the grace of God and/or some development executive, the Perry-helmed Obama biopic never happened. Others include Ed Norton and, on a semifrequent basis, Will Smith, who just last year joked that he had the ears to pull off the role and mentioned it to President Obama himself.
Of course, while the more established Hollywood folks have yet to produce films, thanks to indie filmmakers, we now already have two. Unfortunately, neither film has lived up to the stature of our history-making 44th president.
Last August, there was Southside With You, a film about the first date between Barack and Michelle Obama. It’s not bad per se. It’s a cute, mythologizing look at the president and the nation’s first lady. Thankfully, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Such characteristics are the problem with the other Obama movie now out, the Netflix-distributed Barry. There are two things to like about Vikram Gandhi’s film. It may be a low-budget effort, but it certainly doesn’t look like it. Then there is Devon Terrell, the 20-year-old Australian-born actor playing the first black president of the United States, who deserves credit for learning to play basketball with his left hand and nailing Obama’s very distinct accent.
Terrell is undoubtedly a star in the making, and if he doesn’t mind playing Obama again, he should welcome any future opportunity to do so—because he could likely do a whole lot more with better material.
That said, Barry makes for strange viewing.
In an interview about the film, Gandhi explained his intentions: “I never set out to make a film that celebrated Obama’s charisma—instead, I wanted to make a film that shows how universal and human his personal story really is.”
Gandhi is right to assert how universal the human experience can be, but there’s something to be said for knowing the specific experience you aim to help explain. Gandhi, too, attended Columbia University in New York City, and apparently lived in the building next to the one Obama moved to on Manhattan’s 109th Street. OK, but the black experience—notably when you are of mixed race and have as varied a background as Obama does—requires a certain kind of perspective. Gandhi turned to Adam Mansbach, author of the children’s book for adult children, Go the Fuck to Sleep, and novels like Angry Black White Boy and The End of Jews, for that.
Together they made a movie that often feels aimless in some cases and heavy-handed in others. After Obama lands in New York, he meets every cliché about New York City in the 1980s. Fair enough, but then, the very next morning, he’s eating breakfast while listening to Jesse Jackson. Not long after, Obama quotes Jackson in class, only to be confronted by a white student who inquires why Jackson hugged Yasser Arafat. This same person, who becomes a friend, also wonders why we black folks always talk about slavery.
Perhaps this wouldn’t feel like so much if we then didn’t see Obama reading Invisible Man on the basketball court. I’m certain Obama has read the book, but the imagery still feels hokey. The same goes for later in the film when Obama is buying The Souls of Black Folk in Harlem (from Fab Five Freddy).
Maybe Obama did confront a Black Israelite in Harlem for calling a white woman on the street a “cave bitch” by highlighting the irony of folks who can’t stand white people who nonetheless read the King James version of the Bible, but really? The same goes for the minority roommate (a bartender who doesn’t attend Columbia) advising Obama not to attend a university party because they’ll never be welcomed, only to have Obama object, highlighting his long-spoken belief in the goodness of everyone (despite all the white people vocalizing their hatred of him to the contrary).
As for the scene with the Jesse Jackson hater telling Obama that he’s half-white and therefore fits in anywhere, to which Obama hits back with, “I don’t feel anywhere, man”? God. That line feels lifted from Mariah Carey’s “Outside.”
The only scene truly believable in the film is a young Obama dancing off the beat with the black girl. Yeah, a lot of folks say Obama can dance, and the shimmy has gotten better over time, but c’mon; nah.
Ultimately, and what’s really grating about the film, is that the majority of it chronicles Obama’s relationship with his white girlfriend Charlotte. By the end, he doesn’t want her, and honestly, who cares? We know he married Michelle Robinson anyway, but I guess you can cite Charlotte for asking him, “Do you not believe in change?” which—dun-dun-dun—turns into “Change you can believe in.”
The film ambitiously seeks to explore race and identity through Obama’s journey coming to grips with his biracialism, while offering larger observations about America’s racial divide. It doesn’t really net either goal and, for all its good intentions, just comes across as two people who aren’t black trying to explain a black experience they haven’t lived and clearly cannot fathom, research be damned. It comes across as a remixed version of Obama’s life story in order to present their own feelings about racial identity in America. Someone as nuanced and complex as Barack Hussein Obama deserves better.
That there are already two movies about Obama’s life made before he leaves office is not unprecedented. Plenty of movies about World War II were made during World War II. There will be plenty more made. However, a warning to those who dare try: Proceed with caution. As cute and/or bewildering as the two we have now are, I hope that future projects feel bigger and make for better viewing. Take your time, though. We can wait for greatness. The same way so many waited for him.