Ever since I saw the trailer, I really wanted to see the movie Barry on Netflix. I have yet to read any of the books that Barack Obama published on his life, so I was eager to see a bit of our current President’s formative years fleshed out on film. Well the movie didn’t really live up to the hype that I had built up for it in my head. I believe that a big part of that is how the script choose to deal with interracial relationships.
But first, let me give a quick synopsis of the movie (some spoilers may follow): the movie focuses on a pretty narrow timeframe in 1981, perhaps just one semester, when Barack Obama, who went by the name “Barry” at the time, transferred to Columbia University in New York City from a much smaller school in California. Barry is trying to come to terms with being a biracial man who isn’t truly comfortable in either the Black or White communities. Overt racism towards him is minimal (except for the douchy campus security guard that hounds him); and most of the struggle is internal. In all honesty the early 1980s was not a time for racially mixed people to really shine in their own niche; and if you were mixed with Black, you most often identified as a Black American and with the Black community. Barry’s issue is that he didn’t really have that relationship with the Black community and almost no relationship with his Black/African father. The film also tries to highlight Barry’s struggles with this as well.
During most of the movie, Barry is in a romantic relationship with Charlotte, a fellow White co-ed from a rich, liberal New York family. At first the relationship sparks based on shared interests and admiration. But as time goes on (which remember, in this film, isn’t all that much time really), he begins to question both Charlotte’s motives and how the Black community sees him.
A Snide View of Interracial Relationships Overall
I probably would have liked this film more if it would have downplayed Barry’s interracial relationship and focused just more on him, his time in New York, and making his way through Columbia. Instead it seemed to use Barry’s romance with a White woman as the underlying catalyst for him to want to connect more with his Black side. His discomfort around her family, with being seen with her, etc. seemed to undermine his racial security. Even if this was in fact true, it ultimately has little to do with his eventual success. In fact, if I were to oversimplify the message given by this movie it would be, “Hey Barry was a conflicted biracial man, but went on to embrace his Blackness, married a beautiful Black woman, and then went on to hold the highest office in the land. And they lived happily ever after…’The End’.”
The larger truth is that there were plenty of other social issues at play that could have doomed Barry and Charlotte’s relationship besides race. They were from completely different socio-economic spheres for one. Charlotte had a supportive and stable nuclear family while Barry was dealing with daddy issues. Barry was a newbie to New York with no ties while Charlotte’s family had all sorts of roots and a strong network there. And you could go on and on.
It seemed that the script writers tried to balance the message by having Barry talk to an older interracial couple who had been happily married for sometime. But the conversation was just Yoda-style generalities (the opening line of the trailer where you hear a voice talk about ‘passing the torch’…was an excerpt) and said nothing specifically about interracial relationships. Charlotte’s last scene in the film is Barry walking away from her during a slow dance…with no explanation; just Charlotte’s stricken face fading into the background.
Because of the ambiguous nature of Barry’s romantic relationship, I felt that the film made Barry’s feelings on his own racial identity ambiguous. Even if this was the case, I don’t want to sit and watch a movie about it. In the end Barry goes back to playing basketball in the ‘hood with the brothas. That all seemed like a weak attempt to show that finally Barry has grown comfortable in his own skin.
Black Love vs. Self Love
The movie ends way before Barry/Barack met Michelle Robinson, the Black woman who would eventually become is wife. Today they stand as Black America’s super couple. It has given Barack Obama some reinforcement to being an African-American man (by the standards of the twisted logic that Americans have about race). The Obamas are the poster children for Black love. However in Barack Obama’s case, Black love is not synonymous with self love. Barack is just as much White as he is Black. The race of the woman that he chooses to marry has no reflection on his love and acceptance of himself. This is true even for people who are only of one race. Motives mean everything…and situations are rarely black and white. Susan B. Anthony famously denigrated her suffragette peer, Elizabeth Stanton, for having 7 children, which she felt undermined the message of women’s autonomy. While Mrs. Stanton was staunchly for women’s rights regardless of her familial situation, it is Ms. Anthony, not she who has become the historical figure that embodies women’s rights. Similarly we make the mistake of thinking that those who engage in interracial relationships harbor self hate. This is especially true for African-Americans.