Movie review: Barry (2016)

I was looking for a pick-me-up. A movie about the recent former president seemed like just the thing.

Barry is a biopic about former President Obama’s first year in college. In 1981, Barry arrives in New York City, carrying a recent letter from his long-absent father, inviting him to Kenya. The letter refers to Barry making a fresh start in a new city—Barry is moving to NYC to attend Columbia University.

The movie focuses on Barry coming to grips with who he is, what that means, and where he fits in the world. He is an oddity: a product of a white American woman and a black Kenyan man. He grew up in Hawaii, Indonesia, and California. To say that his ethnicity and his life experiences are unusual in comparison to most Americans is a bit of an understatement.

Barry doesn’t quite fit anywhere. Even in NYC, a melting pot of cultures, he encounters no one with such diverse life experiences. Americans do not tend to experience living abroad. He was raised abroad in large part. Americans are increasingly from mixed cultural families but was still rare enough in 1981 for Barry to feel like an outsider.

The movie hones in on Barry seeking to find his place and discover who he is, something that all teenagers and early twenty-somethings grapple with. But because of his background and life experiences, these issues are more difficult, more front and center, more pressing for Barry.

The image of Barry that the movie presents is of a man quiet and reflective, who seeks to learn and understand. Barry is quite comfortable moving in white society. But at times it just isn’t his scene. It doesn’t feel right to him or offer him what he needs.

He seeks out black society, but clearly he is a newbie to this society and its norms. A friend that he makes on a pick-up game of neighborhood basketball introduces him to the projects. This is a new world to Barry and one that he seeks to navigate but fails. He retreats. It is just not his scene.

He rubs shoulders with privileged, progressive whites but feels out of place. At the wedding of his white girlfriend’s sister, he removes himself. Sitting at the bar, he chats with the two black bartenders who hail from different African countries. After revealing to them that he just learned of his Kenyan father’s death, they offer condolences. An invisible bond exists. But this isn’t really where Barry belongs either.

His girlfriend’s mother, with good intentions, introduces him to two people who she thinks he should know. He is escorted to a table with two minorities. Ah, that’s why. The minority table. But actually it is an important moment for Barry. He meets an Asian woman and a black man who have been together for several decades, progressives who are fighting the good fight.

The movie deals with the struggle of Barry discovering who he is. It shows the pain, the uncertainty, the not belonging anywhere. But I was struck by how this was actually a strength for Barry. He was exposed to so many different groups of people, learned about them, and learned how to navigate between different cultures and norms.

We tend to think of America as one culture, but it is not. Even among a single race, there are different cultures: based on economic, educational, and social experiences. Being able to understand different cultures and move between and among them—cultural adaptability—is an incredible skill to have.

Cultural adaptability comes from necessity in a lot of cases, of not belonging to any one group or not identifying strongly with a tribe. It can be alienating and lonely, but empowering and liberating because it allows you to see, experience, and understand so much more. You see the 10,000 foot as well as the 500 foot view. You see the trees and the forest and can walk among all of them.

Barry reveals the struggles that the future president went through in figuring out who he was and what he wanted his identity to be. It suggests how he became the President he was. His life on the world stage showed people of color that you too can do this. He showed that as a multi-cultural person he struggled to make sense of his place in the world, which can offer solace to others facing similar challenges of not belonging in any one place. In fact, the movie—and life of Obama—seems to say that this multi-cultural-ism, this searching for who you are and where you belong, is OK.

I say it is more than OK. Cultural adaptability—whether culture is defined on an international scale or a local economic or educational one—is a strength. Think of it as a super power in a world desperately in need of super heroes.


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