While thinking about Barry, Vikram Gandhi’s 1981-set film about a young Barack Obama as he arrived in New York City to attend Columbia University, I found myself thinking about me in 1981, as I arrived in New York City to attend Columbia University.
To be frank, I’ve been thinking about President Obama in juxtaposition to myself for years, ever since his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Like many Black folks that evening, I looked up the tall, handsome, well-spoken brotha from Chi-town. Tall and handsome notwithstanding, I found that I had a lot in common with the biracial son of a Kenyan scholar and an American white lady from Kansas. None of those things – but a lot.
An evening in 2004
That evening in 2004, with elegance and verve, Barry, long since Barack, stirred the democratic heart of our nation with talk of hope, change, and one America, built by people like him – literally, a little bit of everyone.
Every word from Obama’s mouth that evening lived in an idea or concept for the kind of world that I wanted for my countrymen, my family, and me. Beyond our politics, there was a deeper identification with the young senator from Illinois – a state in the American Midwest; the Midwest where I was from and knew quite well.
St. Louis, Missouri, my hometown, is much like Chicago with an inferiority complex. Much the same in every way – history and culture and ethnic divides – though St. Louis is less obnoxious regarding its achievements. The Cardinals didn’t need over 100 years to get to several World Series, let alone to win (a few). Still, the cities themselves are much the same.
Mixed genealogical histories adding up to ‘Black’
In 2004, all black Americans watching Barack Obama give that keynote address instantly understood that he was what we called “mixed” – and what white folks called “biracial.” I knew I wasn’t biracial in the terms by which we assess such things in America; terms that are strict and that over the years have often been written into law. However, I also knew that my genealogical history was no less mixed than Barack’s – or that of most black Americans, for that matter.
It’s understood by African Americans that part of our lineage generally runs to white folks. In my family, it accrues to Jewish and Irish bloodlines mostly; some Native American and, obviously, African. I also knew that in America all of that adds up to Black. Full stop.
Unable to fit into race-based identity politics
Here is the place where Barry and I part, at least according to director Vikram Gandhi and screenwriter Adam Mansbach. Barry was unclear about his place in the world of race-based identity politics. He wanted to claim all his bloodlines at once – or none at all – which left both him and most of his acquaintances confused about who or what he was in terms of race.
In the film, Barry Obama is played (quite well) by Devon Terrell, employing just of hint of the president’s very particular accent and halting speech pattern. At one point early on, Barry says to his roommate (laconically played by Boyhood actor Ellar Coltrane), “I don’t fit in anywhere.”
That’s not an original thought for a youth from any background, but Obama ’81 had a pretty good reason for thinking so. It would take some time for Barry to settle into the fact of his “blackness” by American standards – understandable given his specific upbringing, which was hardly typical for American Black folks of our generation.
As a young man Barry Obama hardly knew his Kenyan father or his siblings from his father’s other relationships. When he wasn’t living with his elderly white grandparents in Kansas, he spent time with his scholarly white mother in Hawaii or Indonesia, alongside his half-Indonesian half-sister from his mother’s second marriage.
It’s no surprise it took Barry a bit longer to sort through his understanding of how things work in America before landing on the only race he’d ever be: Black.
The ‘brotha’ who could be president
Black folks watching Barack Obama in 2004 knew then – no matter the mix – he was a brotha. By then, of course, he knew it too. Black folks in ’04 also knew that the brotha with the funny name could be president one day.
We understood it in the same way we understood that Jesse Jackson, for instance, was never going to be president of the United States. Ever. We understood it in the same way we understood Donald Trump could be elected president – even after Barack Obama was elected – twice.
Black folks understand these things about the nature of America – because we do. Admittedly, we weren’t sure Obama would survive being president, indeed we worried that he might not because we really do understand America.
Still, we always knew he could do it. And he did it – twice.
But I digress. The things I have in common with our 44th president are in every way mundane. Indicators of absolutely nothing, either on a practical or a spiritual level. Nevertheless, they resonate, at least with me. After watching Barry they resonated all the more, but are no more meaningful in the larger world, except by way of offering me a window into the way the president interprets it. He sees it the way I do.
Indeed, over the past 7-plus years, I’ve often found myself listening to President Obama speak as I mouthed the very words that would come out of his mouth. Not because he’d said them before, as they were often novel, but because I actually knew what he thought about the subject at hand – because I knew what I thought about the subject at hand. Disappointing for my fans – such as you are – who opposed the president on most issues.
Barry the Optimist
Like Obama, I’m inclined to attempt to bring you around on the subject, to find common ground, because like both Barry and Barack, I too am an optimist. But then again, unlike Barry or Barack, I’m pretty sure it ultimately won’t work.
In truth, my optimism has waned over the years. For Barry, that optimism, backed up by a fearlessness regarding his own physical safety (partially driven by nicotine, as Barry smoked a lot), is what the film Barry is all about. My waning optimism notwithstanding, this too is something we have in common. (Although I never smoked. Well, not cigarettes.)
According to Barry, it was in the fall of 1981 that optimism was solidified in the young Barry Obama. It’s also definitely about the time it was forged in me. These were our foundational moments. The moments in life that establish all of us within ourselves.
They were for Barry the experiences that made him Barack, that made him The President, even before that evening in 2004. They didn’t have that exact effect on me, obviously. I’ve never been the president of anything, though I was a sergeant in the United States Air Force, which, believe it or not, requires a similar set of leadership skills. They are both forms of community organizing, only with the authority to make people do things. Something that, to my mind, good presidents (and sergeants) almost never need to do.
If you’re good at leading people, they follow because they’re with you – not because you give them an order. I never ordered anybody to do anything when I was in the military because I never needed to; I’d just ask and they’d do it. This was something that Barry came to understand in the early 1980s, too. I count it among the things we have in common.
Indeed, in 1981, Barry Obama, as conceived by Gandhi and Mansbach, saw the world much like me. I claim the elder perspective as I’m one month older than the President. We were born in July and August of 1961, respectively. It’s just a coincidence. Not at all important or meaningful in any way.
Nevertheless, in 1981, Barry and me were at that forging age, 20 or 21, experiencing the moments that would make us us. I had been in the United States Air Force since 1979, the year both Barry and I graduated from high school. I went to basic training, he went off to college; our boyhoods ended, ready or not.
Barry was a young man on his own in the world when he headed to Columbia after having spent time at Occidental College in Pasadena. As it happens, I live in Pasadena and taught at Occidental College, though not in association with President Obama, in any way. It’s irrelevant, and means nothing to anyone – except me.
In the film, Barry arrives in New York City to attend Columbia University in August of 1981. As it happens, I was a young airman in New York City in the summer of 1981, attending Columbia while on temporary duty assignment from the 42nd Air Division, 97th Bombardment Division. Point is we both happened to be in New York City in the fall of 1981, studying at Columbia.
We did not meet. This is not important.
Sorting out the ‘why’
The city that both Barry and I were roaming around in 1981 was still wobbling from the bankruptcy of 1975. It was steeped in violence and racial unrest, among other problems, but it was also vibrant with punk and a burgeoning art form called rap that would shape America over the next three decades – and it shaped us a bit, too.
Barry was a young man already formed, yet still evolving – as was I. Already who we would become while still sorting out the “why” of everything. “Why,” in fact, was a central question of 1981 for many people including Barry and me.
In 1981, Barry Obama was in his pre-Michelle Robinson period. Their getting together is all captured in a different 2016 movie called Southside with You, which is also quite good. For my part, by then I’d already met and married my Michelle, so to speak. I’d been in love with her since we were kids and we got married in the summer of 1981 just before I was sent TDY to New York. As noted, that’s all a different movie. Barry and I also have this in common – we are both crazy in love with our one and only wives – and always will be.
life in 1981
In 1981, Barry was captivated by but cynical about politics. He argued Plato with the reasoning of Socrates and debated political philosophies with his fellow students on the Right and the Left, while defending the concerns of the minority from the tyranny of the majority under all circumstances. All the while having no idea how or if he would be able to make a difference in any of it.
In 1981, Barry already knew that, unlike most of his classmates and friends from the street, he would not be going for the money. One way or another, everybody in 1981 was going for the money. Some sold junk bonds, others cocaine – and often to each other. Either way, in the 1980s it was all about making a million dollars before you were twenty-five.
Barry knew that there had to be more to life than making money; he knew this from the perch of a poor person, one who could easily go for the money like everybody else and leave all his financial cares behind, forever. But like me, Barry was raised better than that. Score one for the scholarly white lady from Kansas.
In 1981, Barry was going for white girls. These were the ones he dated at the time. Really cute white girls who looked a lot like his mother – because sometimes Freud is right. Not one of the women Barry Obama actually dated is in Gandhi’s movie; instead, one character represents several of them.
Played by Anya Taylor-Joy, she’s called Charlotte in the film; while she’s not given credit for enlightening the still evolving Barry Obama regarding his race, his politics, or even his name (it’s not clear she even knew his real name), she’s not played as irrelevant either. Neither she, nor the women she represents, are essential to Barry’s transformation into Barack, but they did influence him greatly, as girlfriends often do. They were not his Michelle, but they mattered.
Other characters in Barry are also composites of people the president knew during his time at Columbia. They are the result of the filmmakers’ interviews with people he dated and learned from, hung out with and even fought with, during his time in New York. They provide context both for the film’s subtle biographical tributes to the young Barry Obama, and for the more didactic political pitches of the man who would eventually become President Barack Obama. They are not props per se, but they do serve a similar purpose.
Thugs & basketball
When Barry wasn’t smoking and having sex with smart, artsy white girls, he studied hard, partied a little, and played basketball a lot, often with thugs who argued as much as they played ball in raucous neighborhood parks. He almost got himself shanked more than once while acting as the voice of reason, literally standing between angry young men ready to come to blows over a perceived slight during a basketball game.
He lived in an ethnically diverse, low-income community where he was tested by the guys on the block on a daily basis. He made friends – some lifelong – from whom he seeks counsel to this day. Minus the cigs and the artsy white girls, I was doing most of that too back in 1981.
Among the other features of the president’s time in New York City that Barry highlights are his experiences being “the only.” The only black person in most of his classes. The only poor person in a room full of rich people. The only rational person in a room full of irrational people. The only student to be asked for an ID on a campus full of students with IDs – but who did not look like him.
I deeply identify with being “the only,” as do many others, in one context or another. Perhaps, you…
Indeed, by my measure, if one has never been “the only something” in their life, they likely didn’t vote for Barack Obama to become president of these United States. They probably wouldn’t have liked him much during his college days at Columbia. Nor would they care for this movie about his life in the early 1980s, or my thoughts about the film, particularly as related to me.
Of course those people probably would not be reading this long, overly personal essay on Barry and me, anyway.
But you have been, so you probably get him. And you probably get me.