Prepping my screening schedule s at the Toronto International Film Festival, I always pursue the kind of movie that can qualify as a personal critical discovery – something other than the ones destined to dominate awards season coverage. With streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, newcomers to the film game are now also looking for such films, increasing the chances of the public seeing such good films that in previous years might have remained buried treasures in the festival catalogue.
This year, low and behold, I stumbled upon a listing for Vikram Gandhi’s Barry, starring Devon Terrell, an unknown actor, as the young Barry Obama when he was a transfer student entering Columbia University in the early 1980s. That was when black students were few and far between. This Obama was far from the smooth talking ladies man presented earlier this year in Richard Tanne’s Southside With You, wooing Michelle Robinson into joining him on a first date movie (Do The Right Thing).
Barry captures a young biracial man-child struggling to find a place in this “promised land.” It speaks to his experience as a black man who would challenge the notion of what it means to be African American.
Gandhi and screenwriter Adam Mansbach, making his feature debut here, expertly navigate the tricky racial journey of their protagonist, signaling his sense of unease. More importantly, Terrell quietly downplays the idea that the guy we’re watching will ever become the first African American President of the United States. His Barry is searching for a community to call his own. And the film Barry offers glimpses of the two sides of America’s racial coin and documents the radical choice Obama made by embracing his blackness. Without his early struggles, we wouldn’t have a President Barack Obama to celebrate. (Barry debuts on Netflix Friday.) CityBeat grade: A