Barry: Looking Back For Hope

After one of the most polarising and scandalous elections in modern U.S. history, it was only a matter of time before the feelings of nostalgia for a more politically stable and idealistic time materialised into mainstream culture. Enter Netflix with Barry, a film centred around a young Barack Obama.

In fact, with 2016 finally being left in the past, it is safe to say that it has generally not been a great year in the grand scheme of things. This year seemed to be a constant series of awful events. Whether it was; the Brexit result, the death of Pop Icons David Bowie, Prince, and now George Michael, racial tensions in North America, the Aleppo conflicts, or the appointment of Donald Trump as the new President-elect of the United States. The underlying sentiment for people, especially young people, has been one of hopelessness and the stagnation of social progress.

“The film subtly holds a mirror up to institutionalised Racism in America.”

With 2017 looming, a feeling of longing for President Obama’s administration, which came to symbolise hope and progression for many, has officially set in. Therefore, the Netflix release of Barry which depicts young Obama during his time at Columbia University in New York could not have come at a more poignant time.

The film presents a young Obama (Devon Terrell) and the difficulties he faces being one of the only bi-racial students at Columbia University in 1981. Being of both black and white origin the young Obama feels as though he belongs no-where. His sense of alienation is heightened when he starts dating Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy), a white New York native, whose background differs completely to fellow student PJ (Jason Mitchell) who resides in the Harlem ‘projects’.

Barry cannot relate completely to either character, which leaves him feeling alienated and lost. Furthermore, the young Obama is estranged from his Kenyan father and does not feel ‘American’. His childhood spent in Honolulu and Indonesia means he cannot define where he is from, and therefore struggles to find his purpose and place in the world.


The film avoids the trap of presenting Obama as a two-dimensional character, free from flaws, and destined for the White House. Instead, we are presented with an Obama who wants to improve the lives of those around him but is at a loss of how to do so. Terrell captures Obama’s iconic voice without becoming a caricature, and portrays Obama as a confused student whom we can all relate to.

The film subtly holds a mirror up to institutionalised racism in America. Which it does, through contrasting the prominently white population of Columbia University with Harlem, the historically African American community, which is just a stone’s throw away from the campus yet feels like a completely different world. The plot is not overflowing with drama and plot twists, which gives the film a sense of sincerity, and avoids hitting you over the head with its message.

Barry centres on what it means to be American and stresses that what you are doing is more important than where you are from. Echoed in the pivotal last scene of the film when a young Obama states that “I’m from a lot of places but I live here now”.


‘Barry’ poignantly presents Obama as an ever-relevant symbol of hope. One that is still very much needed today.  

Polly Dorrofield

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Media courtesy of Netflix

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