Who or what is Barry?
I paraphrase Cornel West often, and will do so again here, because he has spent much of his critical life attempting to crack the code on what it means to be American, and the new (and latest) film on President Obama’s life prior to venturing into politics contemplates the same enigma.
Well, the film – directed by Vikram Gandhi from a script by Adam Mansbach – and its subject (with Devon Terrell offering us this portrait of the first black President as a young man), like the country, is “a fragile experiment,” intent on “self-making and self-creating” from scattered pinpoints on the map and a sense of being half of one thing and/or another without being truly whole. Barry is a character study of a man, a time, and a nation in flux, searching for some reflection of itself, a sense of identity, a way to wrap its arms around its own tangible representation of what it means to be a black man.
There is promise in the 20-year old college student (transferring to Columbia University) presented to us, this nice looking fellow introduced to us as Barry. We know that he fulfills some measure of that promissory note, from our current vantage point, but the film also argues that the Barry of today might still be questioning, searching for answers, despite all that he has achieved.
I like that idea of Barry, the man extended from this early reflection. I appreciate his yearning. There is so much he doesn’t know, and with all the security briefings he’s received in these recent years, I would like to believe that he remains skeptical.
Barry is the story of a man willing to take a knee, not so much in protest, but in deference to his own lack of answers, the kind that right social wrongs, that make the situations of those who continue “to suffer, shudder and struggle in the face of inevitable” consequences beyond their control any better, that address the fundamental inability of this nation to live up to its ideals and principles. Barry goes looking and it takes us on the journey, one that doesn’t, to be brutally honest, take us to places we’ve never seen before, but we’re accompanied by surprising characters, who, in their own ways, are trying to figure it all out too.
It is no accident that I alluded to Colin Kaepernick, the back-up quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who has triggered much discussion over his controversial decision to no longer stand during the playing of the national anthem. Initially, during the pre-season, he sat, alone and away from the spotlight, then, once noticed, he remained seated with his head down, in quiet contemplation, and recently, his protest, which has sharpened under media glare and heated debate across social media, has evolved into taking a knee (out of respect to the military – which was never even the focus of his effort), while others of conscience in the NFL (and in other fields of play) have added raised fists in support.
Kaepernick is 28 years old, chronologically past the age we approach Barry Obama in Barry, but the tentative and sometimes stumbling evolution in their thinking and action is plain. Barry arrives in New York for college with no sense of identity and a collection of fragmented personal markers. A mother from Kansas. A father from Kenya that he has only met once. Grandparents in Hawaii, who we don’t hear about in this film, but who (at least his grandmother) make an appearance in the earlier Obama biopic Southside With You. When asked where he’s from, he presents a roll call of places – Hawaii, Kenya, Indonesia – but it is a list that bedevils him and his effort to rank the locations based on some measure of meaning that still escapes him.
New York teases him with the promise of finding a home, a scene to call his own, but he wanders blindly, learning from each step, but the lesson frustrates him, in that there’s never a clearly defined resolution.
I imagine Kaepernick finds himself in a familiar realm. Everyone wants and expects an outcome, an end to his protest; none moreso than Kaepernick himself. What he’s discovering though, like Barry Obama in Barry, is that meaning and purpose make us. We cannot wrangle or make these ideas.
So in the end, it is best to just keep our heads down and work on the thing that we can define – ourselves. That’s the task of a lifetime, and one not exclusively owned by Americans.