(2016) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Jay, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane Jenna Elfman, Linus Roache, Avi Nash, John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Judd, Sawyer Pierce, Eric Berryman, Ralph Rodriguez, Danny Henriquez, Tessa Albertson, Tommy Nelson, Annabelle Attanasio, Matt Ball, Markita Prescott. Directed by Vikram Gandhi
Barack Obama is a President who has provoked very extreme reactions. To the left he is a hero, a model of decorum and grace, whose intelligence and class has carried him through one of the roughest most vitriolic attacks from the opposition in the history of the Presidency. To the right he is nothing short of a terrorist, a Muslim whose mission was to destroy our country from within. There are some who take the middle ground between the two of course but largely those two extremes have been the popular conception from each political point of view.
But there was a time before that when he was just an ordinary college student. Back then, everyone called him Barry (Terrell) and he had about as much confidence in his future as any college student, maybe even less so. I suspect if anyone had told Barry that he was going to be the 44th President of the United States he’d probably want some of what you’ve been smoking – Barry after all is not above occasionally partaking in the wacky weed.
He has just transferred to Columbia University in New York City looking for a degree in political science. The product of a white mother and an African father, his parents are divorced; his mom is in Hawaii where he grew up, his dad has returned to Kenya. Barry is trying to write a letter to his dad to express what he feels but can’t find the words. Barry also feels like an outside in both the white and African-American spheres.
He meets Charlotte (Joy), the daughter of wealthy parents and the two begin dating but as always Barry isn’t sure where he fits in. He plays street ball with local guys from the neighborhood like PJ (Mitchell) with whom he strikes up a friendship, but he feels like an outsider. Similarly he doesn’t belong in the world of country clubs and pricey restaurants that his girlfriend is used to. His roommate Will (Coltrane) tries to help but mostly the two get high together.
To my way of thinking this isn’t so much a biography of the President as it is an exploration of how young men can be lost in not knowing who they are. Of course, it’s especially true for someone in Barry’s situation but it should ring true for just about everybody. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a biography in any case (Charlotte, for one thing, is a composite character) but it supposedly reflects Obama’s inner turmoil and his personality pretty well at that time of his life.
The overall tone is pretty laid-back which flirts with actual boredom from time to time. There is a whole lot of philosophizing going on and not a ton of conflict. Most of the conflict is pretty much internal; while Obama struggles with finding a place he’s truly comfortable with in both the white world and the African-American and there are moments in which he feels discrimination from both sides, it isn’t as if he is overly oppressed here. There are times he is hassled by a University Security guard for likely the color of his skin. He also is targeted by angry African-Americans who resent the opportunities he is getting because of his Caucasian blood.
Terrell does a pretty good job of playing Obama, capturing his very recognizable cadence of speech. This isn’t always a flattering portrait but then again, think of yourself as a 20-year-old and see if a film biography of you at that age will be one you’re particularly proud of. It’s a pretty layered performance and Terrell captures the essence of the man. How close it is to the real man is best left answered by those who know the ex-President well (which certainly doesn’t describe me) but I think that there are at least elements of the real Barack Obama here, or at least the real Barack Obama at 20.
As I’ve said with similar movies about public figures of recent years, I don’t know that this gives us any real insight into the heart and mind of our 44th president who is a notoriously private individual. It isn’t scintillating material but those who admire President Obama will find this interesting. Those who feel the opposite aren’t going to watch this anyway.
REASONS TO GO: It seems to be an attempt to humanize the 44th President by portraying him as a young college student trying to find himself.
REASONS TO STAY: I thought it went a little too low-key.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find a little bit of violence, some drug use, a smidgen of sensuality and a small amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film of both director Vikram Gandhi and star Devon Terrell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southside With You