Netflix’s Barry Gives Us A Year in the Life of Young Obama

Before the White House, before Michelle, there was just Barry. In the Netflix original, Barry, we see the 44th President of the United States as he enters his first year of post-secondary schooling. There are drugs, romance, and a struggle to discover where one fits in the world.


This September the film made its debut at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and is “a nuanced, artistic exploration of a pivotal year in the life of Barack Obama”. Arriving in New York City in the fall of 1981, “Barry”, as he is known to his friends, is beginning his first year at Columbia University amidst a crime-ridden and racially charged environment. Between his classmates, a love interest (not Michelle), his estranged Kenyan father, and his free-spirited mother, Barry struggles to find a balance with the various people in his life. It is this year and the challenges that accompany it that will shape his future views on race and government.


Barry stars Australian newcomer Devon Terrell in a breakout performance as young Obama, and features a strong supporting cast of familiar faces including Ashley Judd (Divergent, Double Jeopardy), Jenna Elfman (Friends With Benefits, Big Stone Gap), and up-and-comers Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood), and Avi Nash (Learning to Drive, “Silicon Valley”). Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi (Kumaré, HBO’s “Vice”), a Columbia University alumni, approached fellow alum Adam Mansbach (author of “Go the F**k to Sleep”) to help tell this origin story, and from that collaboration Mansbach penned the script.


The film is an interesting look at a formative year in the life of America’s outgoing President. Terrell captures Obama’s mannerisms well and it’s easy to see his portrayal as a reflection of what a younger Obama might have been like. While I was slightly disappointed that there’s no Michelle yet at this point in his life, Taylor-Joy, in the role of the love interest, does a great job of helping Barry examine where he fits as a young biracial man.

Watching Barry will give you a sense of what led Barack Obama to become the man he is today. More importantly it examines issues that are still being dealt with 35 years later. For a movie that is set at the beginning of the 80’s, it couldn’t be more relevant today.

By Kevin Joseph

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