Director Vikram Gandhi’s upcoming biopic “Barry”, about President Barack Obama’s youthful years has already received kudos from a discerning audience at the Toronto International Film Festival where it premiered in September. It will soon be available on Netflix Dec. 16.
The film focuses on Obama’s life at Columbia University where he transferred in 1981. It explores the themes of race and identity as they impinged on a mixed-race African-American whose mother was white and father an African from Kenya.
Australian actor Devon Terrell who Gandhi found after a worldwide search, plays Barry. In the biopic, Barry feels out of place in every racial setting and tellingly says, “I fit nowhere.”
Gandhi, who was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey where he continues to live, earned plaudits for his earlier film “Kumaré”, a documentary where he impersonated an Eastern guru in America, and actually got a following even as a fake persona.
Long before Barack Obama was the “cool, charismatic leader he is today,” he was one of the few black students at Columbia University in the early ‘80’s, majoring in political science and living on 109th street. The film depicts an Obama navigating his way through the judgmental and racist opinions swirling around him, as he tries to find his place in the world.
“It’s about a guy who would one day become the president,” Gandhi said in an interview with Vanity Fair in September after the film premiered at TIFF. “Not the president as he is now.
“Devon probably has as much in common as a human being, with Barry as may be Barack Obama does with the guy he used to be,” Gandhi said. “Just anyone who is in that early age, they change and transform. We were trying to figure out who that kid was,” Gandhi said.
“Barry” was in the works for a long time, and sort of snowballed into the film that one sees, Gandhi recently told Filmmaker magazine. The director read Obama’s seminal autobiography, “Dreams From My Father” some five years ago, around the time of Obama’s re-election in 2012. His interest sparked, Gandhi burrowed into several biographies and articles written about Barack Obama.
“Having gone to Columbia myself, and having lived on West 109th St., in the building next door to where Obama had once lived, the sections about Obama’s college life really resonated with me,” Gandhi said.
“I could see the whole thing playing out in this really nuanced and colorful way — I knew the classes he took, the books he read, the bars he’d gone to, the streets he’d walked down, the music that filled those streets,” Gandhi told Filmmaker.
The year 1981, the director noted, was the time of artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the birth of hiphop. It was also among the most violent years in New York history under the leadership of the quintessential New Yorker, Mayor Ed Koch.
“It’s a New York I’ve only experienced through photographs and writings. I just wanted to see it all come to life,” Gandhi told Filmmaker.
He soon decided this would be his next feature film and began researching everything he could find to write the film script.
Gandhi said his hope is that the audience can see their own story and potential in the humble story of a kid named Barry, especially in this election year with its contentious and vitriolic rhetoric.
“Since we started the development of this film, the dark reality of American prejudice has reared its head,” Gandhi told the magazine noting that hate crimes against blacks continues.
“I keep wishing that Trump is just pulling a Kumaré, and that one day he’ll tell us that his campaign is all a hoax to teach us not to be duped by false leaders,” Gandhi told Filmmaker. The lesson Americans can learn is that the antidote to racism and prejudice “is empathy, seeing ourselves in others.” he said.