When The A.V. Club spoke to Vikram Gandhi about his film Barry—centered on a college-age Barack Obama—back at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, Gandhi spoke about “Obama nostalgia.” He said, “I just never imagined that we would miss him so much because I never imagined a man named Trump would ever be possibly elected.” Now Barry is being released on Netflix December 16 with a Trump presidency about a month away.
Barry looks at Barack Obama (Devon Terrell) as a newcomer to New York after transferring to Columbia University. Against the landscape of uptown Manhattan—marked by the stark divides between the campus and surrounding areas—he reckons with his own identity. While the movie has affection for Obama, it’s not a simple love letter, but rather an examination of the future president’s perspective.
The A.V. Club: This is your first narrative feature. Did you approach the film as you would a documentary?
Vikram Gandhi: I really was trying to use a different part of my brain. Kumaré was my first film, and I was able to really flex both this side of me that loves fantasy and larger-than-life, otherworldly characters, and real people. And then I’ve been working at Vice for the last couple of years, and that is focused on getting to the truth. So in a way, this was a way of trying to exercise the other part of my brain. Of course, the foundation of it is extremely based on research and things that really happened. It’s a period film. So the process of making it is extremely different than a documentary.
I’m used to on a daily basis improvising every day. But the process of making this was extremely different. You turn the camera a couple degrees and you’re in 2016, and you keep it in the right place and it’s 1981. So that was definitely a different process. It was a much more rigid way of shooting. But it was all for the ends of getting great images. There is a scene in the film when Jason Mitchell’s character, P.J., takes Barry into government housing, and it’s shot in one long Steadicam shot. He kind of hosts it like a TV show. And I realized, I was like, “Okay, this needs to be one shot, because what this is is him pretending to host a show,” which is what I do otherwise, and the action has to come from him and be led by him. So that was my little homage to my Vice on HBO. Jason Mitchell giving a tour of the projects to Barry Obama.
AVC: In the research process, did you look at that the way you would a documentary?
VG: Sure. In fact, actually, one of the people who was my associate producer on Vice was the research person for me on this. I did use that as the same process. I think at a certain point, after you realize, “Okay, here are all the facts that are out there,” either you go down the road of trying to nit-pick what exactly happened, or you tell a story that is emotionally honest and true that you could never restructure.
Because I knew the steps, the places he walked, the building he lived in, the bar that he would have gone to, the blocks that he would have tried not to walk down because they were a bit too sketchy—those were all places that I had experienced firsthand, so a lot of it was, like, “Let’s take the person that we know, try to figure out who he was as a young man, and here’s the labyrinth that he was walking through.”
There’s a lot of stuff that’s just the experience of living in New York as a 20-year-old kid going to an Ivy League school—somebody who’s not white trying to figure out where they belong. It’s really a story about that that’s universal. Everyone I know—not everybody, but so many people I know who’ve lived in New York—who have gone through similar identity issues, who have seen the movie, they all have been like, “Oh, yeah, that’s my story.”
AVC: How did you come to the material?
VG: I think he lived on 142 West 109th St. I lived in 144 West 109th St. I lived right next door to where he had lived 17 years earlier. It was really interesting to do the thought experiment of like, “Whoa, so he lived right here, and then he walked to class. This is how he walked to class.” Also, when you hear about his first night in New York, I imagined, “Oh, this is what would have happened. He got locked out, and he went on this block, and it’s a sketchy block, so he would have tried to find a place to sleep.” All that stuff is based on what happened. So I was just drawing from the fact that when I read this about him, I could just see it playing out in my head. That’s where I think a lot of ideas for films come from—“Why do I keep seeing this? I see it happening, and I want to make it. I want to be able to actually reconstruct this.”
AVC: Did you go to Columbia?
VG: Yeah, I went there for undergrad.
AVC: Were you living in that building when you were at Columbia, or after?
VG: I lived, like most students, on campus, and then I moved off campus my sophomore year, and lived in this apartment for one semester on 109th Street. I was living there as a student. What’s particular about that block is that it was known for a few things. It had a lot of drug dealing on it, and it had a lot of rats on it. It was one block from 110th Street, the border of where the Columbia neighborhood started.
There was a drastic difference in that one block. There used to be a feeling when I walked around New York, even in the ’90s, where you’d kind of go down a block and you’d get this weird shiver of like, “Shit, I don’t know if I want to be on that block.” Because I think when you’re a young person and you move to 109th Street, it’s like, “Okay, people are speaking Spanish.” If you grew up in the suburbs, this is a different neighborhood, socioeconomically from 111th Street, say. So there’s just this feeling of, “Is this going to be a friendly environment?”
You see in the film the portrayal of the neighbors, these friendly guys on the stoop, and one night, they’ve been drinking, and this sort of anger of the gentrification of the neighborhood is coming to them. “Oh, what gives you the right to live in this building?” And that territorialism, which was huge in New York, and still is. But the roots of that were happening in ’81.
AVC: Did you have concerns about the notion of legacy-building for Obama as you were making the film?
VG: Yeah. In the time that he’s been president, there’s actually been huge shifts in health care, but also gay marriage is legal. I know he didn’t always support that, technically, but the reason I mention it is there’s been huge cultural shifts in the last eight years that are shocking. It began with the fact that a man named Barack Hussein Obama was elected to be the president of the United States. What a crazy story that, if you told somebody a year before that, it would sound like a satire. It would sound like some high-concept dystopia.
So all of a sudden, when that happens, it shows how malleable the populace is. “Oh, is that right? Is that good? Is that acceptable?” I feel like in the last year, you’ve seen him step away from the podium and become a much more well-rounded human being, as far as we get to see who he is. I think a lot of that started with violence [that] had to do with young African-American men. Remember when he spoke about Trayvon Martin and said, “I would have looked like him.” He was always dipping into who he was and bringing it out, and I feel like he’s done more and more of that in the last few years.
We’ve seen a human side to a president that we’ve never seen before. I think with Bush, it was always like, “Oh, the human side is him being a fool,” and that’s what you get to see. And what we’re seeing with Obama, the human side, is this is a deep-thinking, intellectual human being who may be a politician but also is a thought leader and a social activist.
AVC: You have this moment very early on in the film that recurs later when a cop stops him. Was that taken from something you found in your research, or was that something you wanted to include because of the current climate?
VG: That’s just what the world is. I’m a brown, bearded man, who has experienced in my adulthood a culture around being the other, or the dangerous person in the room to a segment of the population. There is no way that a young Barack Obama was not stopped by security guys. There’s no way he wasn’t stopped by police officers. Every single African-American male has probably had an experience with an authority figure—police officer, security guard—that it’s not clear if it’s racist. It’s not as if I was drawing from, “Oh, this happened to him,” because that’s just what happens.
[With] our actor Devon, I always reference this film Brother From Another Planet. I was like, “You’ve got to watch this movie, because it’s about a black guy coming to New York with no information about the rules of race in America, and has to now fit himself into this thing.” He’s an alien in that movie. I was like, “That’s kind of like what Barry was experiencing.” He drops in, and it’s like, “Well, these are the rules? Okay, this is pretty arbitrary.”
Devon was coming to America [from Australia], and people were like, “Dude, you’ve got to be careful. The police are going to stop you, and this is going to happen to you.” We just assume the world works like this. So those experiences are in it, just because that’s what it is. I don’t know if the security guard stopped him, but security guards stop me. Security guards stop African-American friends of mine, check their ID, didn’t check anybody else’s. That’s why it’s in there.
I know, if he walked on campus at night, it’s going to happen. It may not have been racist. From behind, does the character in the movie know that he’s African-American? It’s unclear. But that’s just sort of how it works. You never know, fully. I think we’re trying to embody that paranoia, which is actually the real reality of navigating race. [It] isn’t feeling the blow, it’s feeling the eye on you, the presence, and being unclear if you’re paranoid, or if you’re not paranoid enough.
AVC: What were your conversations like with Devon and Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Obama’s girlfriend Charlotte?
VG: So, with Charlotte, there was an understanding of the women he had dated, and the experiences he had with him. What I saw in those stories about Barry, in the early days, [was] he was really intellectually connected with women just like any 20-year-old, and slightly emotionally detached. He wrote letters about T.S. Eliot. He was the Ivy League kid with a lot of high-minded, aspirational ideas, was into poetry.
The reason I mention that is because I took from that and said, “Let’s construct a Charlotte that makes sense for why he would be into somebody like that.” This girl could be perfect, but she would never be perfect because he didn’t know who he was yet. From that, we constructed a character from Charlotte that would embody a real New York, knowledgeable, street-smart, cool girl who knew Harlem better than he did and who knew downtown better, knew the bouncer. It’s like, this girl could understand everything that he was going through on an intellectual level but would never get it on an emotional level, would never have understood why he was uncomfortable in Harlem.
For Devon, he is somebody who has a mixed-race background. He, as he’ll tell you, has a quite complicated family relationship and dynamic. He also is just a wide-eyed, curious, charismatic kid. So I just knew that, as much as I got Barry and as much as I wrote this story with Adam [Mansbach] and tried to home in on who he was, Devon gets it. I was always just like, “What is the shame that somebody feels when they don’t fit in? It’s dark. It’s a dark thing you can’t really talk about.” All of those things that everybody feels when they feel alienated, Devon is just closer in age, closer in experience, looks a lot more like him, probably is received by the world in a similar way as Barry was.
What’s it like to be a part-African-American kid and have no idea what being African-American is like? Devon’s reality of being African-American is one that he learned on television, just like the rest of the world that is inspired by African-American culture, like Jordan and Nike and Kanye West. That’s what the rest of the world is seeing, and that’s where he learned about it from, but he’s half African-American. So I just think he knew what it means to be confused by that and to be labeled as something, and then not actually be that person. I learned a lot from just trying to help him tap into what his own struggle is.
AVC: Do you have a hope for what Obama’s reaction is if he sees it?
VG: I just hope he’s entertained by it. It’s cool if he just sees it and is like, “Yeah, that’s kind of like what it was like.” But I think, just like any audience, I hope that he sees a bit of himself in the film, and that he sees a bit of himself in Barry. We don’t know. He’s the most documented person who’s ever lived. I still don’t believe that anybody except the people that really, really know him know who he is. So I just hope it’s not a shot in the dark, and I think that there’s enough out there where we’re looking at, that maybe this person isn’t like Barack Obama now. But I have a feeling he’s close, that there is some resemblance to who he may have been a long time ago.
AVC: There are a couple of moments of foreshadowing. When [Barry’s friend] Saleem does the imitation of him, we know that this is going to be one of the most imitated people on the planet. There’s the conversation when Barry and Charlotte are watching the mayoral debate and talking politics, and we know he’s going to get into politics. Did you expect flashes of recognition from the audience in those moments?
VG: I think people are reading in certain things that aren’t actually like things that we had scripted. Saleem’s [Avi Nash] impression of Obama in it is just funny, but yeah, it’s drawing on the comedy of the fact that we get to hear the caricature, but it’s a Pakistani-British guy doing it. I think it’s a temptation to put things into the script that telegraph stuff from the future. We just tried to have fun and not take it too seriously, and therefore there are conversations, there’s a reference to change in it.
I think what we were trying to do is to make sure you weren’t trying to say, “Oh, okay, I see where he got those political ideas from.” Because I just don’t know that. He’s in college. He was reading books he’s never talked about. There are influences that came in sitting in Butler Library in Columbia that I’ll never know how they were integrated into his consciousness. But I think we just want to have a little bit of fun in the movie, and make it a little relatable, and it’s hard to make a movie about this period without having a few references to the future.
But I also just think the conversation he had with his girlfriend in the film about politics is something that to some degree wouldn’t be totally out of character. He’s sarcastic in real life. He jokes. I can see him saying, “Politics is bullshit,” because that’s kind of what he ran on. “This is bullshit. I am trying to do something different.” Because of his idealism, I like to think that he wasn’t a politician when he was in college. He was a deep thinker. He integrated his thoughts about the world into a directed place.
One of the things that I saw in him in his old speeches—the way he spoke is extremely circular. He operated in his forehead and mind, and he went on tangents and came back. The guy that we know as Barack Obama is very concise in the way that he speaks, but he still goes into these thoughtful places. I was more like, “How do I get Devon to embody the guy who’s brain is thinking and working all the time, and how can he play that guy?” There are certain things in the film, accidents that we just loved. When we were scouting a country club for the wedding, when we got to this location, I was like, “That looks like the White House.” [I] imagined him smoking a cigarette on the White House lawn thinking, or, like, outside the Congress while the stuffy, old-school world is inside, doing their old-school rituals. He was outside contemplating or getting away from all that noise, having a moment on his own. I wouldn’t be surprised if that still happens to some extent.