In 1981, Barack Obama transferred from Occidental College in Los Angeles to Columbia University. Very little is known about the future president’s life in New York City. Using the smattering of facts that are known, like the death of Obama’s father during that time, Adam Mansbach and Vikram Gandhi made Barry, a deft portrait of a young man unsure of himself and of his place in the world.
Mansbach and Gandhi met in 1996, when they were both students at Columbia. Fast forward to 2014: Gandhi, a filmmaker best known for his documentary Kumaré, and Mansbach, a critically acclaimed novelist who became a cultural sensation with the outrageously successful Go the Fuck to Sleep, spent that summer hanging around Morningside Heights, imagining it back in 1981, creating the story of a college student exploring the neighborhood and the rest of the city. When I spoke to Mansbach on the phone from his home in Berkeley he told me he’d sat in front of Obama’s first apartment building in New York as if the man himself were going to walk out and start answering questions. When I asked if there’s been any feedback on Barry from Obama’s inner circle–there hasn’t been–we joked that Obama is probably just waiting until February, when he is free to be openly critical of films, and our future president.
Between Mansbach’s script, Gandhi’s direction, and Devon Terrell’s uncanny portrayal of a young Obama, Barry is a mostly fictionalized yet emotionally authentic film that’s earned Mansbach an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay.
Here, the writer opens up about and the pitfalls of biopics, the importance of artistic license and the boundaries, real and imagined, between the coasts and Middle America.
When Vikram approached you with the idea of making this movie what was your initial reaction? Was it a no-brainer or did you have reservations?
It’s funny, Vikram approached me twice with it. The first time was a year before the second time, late in Obama’s first term or early in the second term, and he was thinking of it as a web series. I don’t really speak web series and I was busy with other stuff so I passed. But then the next time Vikram said he wanted to do a feature. By then I was doing more screenwriting and I said let’s do it. Thinking of it as a feature I thought it was an ingenious idea. The more we talked about it and set parameters the more excited I got. The parameters being that this wouldn’t be an epiphany-laden story about the six months that made Obama. We needed to avoid the pitfall of bio pics. And I also thought the premise was a good way to make a subtle film about race and New York in 1981. The more Vikram, [producer] Dana O’Keefe, and I talked about it the more we agreed that the movie should work even if the guy didn’t go on to become the president.
The movie is historical fiction. There are moments depicted in the film that Obama has written about in his books, but it’s an era he hasn’t been particularly open about so the narrative is held together by your imagination. How did you choose what to fictionalize?
I wanted to be able to improvise freely on a sparse framework. I didn’t want to contradict any established facts, but I was happy not to be beholden to too many facts. Very little in the movie is drawn from actual events.
Watching the film I was reminded of a passage from Invisible Man: “What about those fellows waiting still and silent there on the platform, so still and silent that they clash with the crowd in their very immobility; standing noisy in their very silence; harsh as a cry of terror in their quietness?” Would you agree with the notion that this is a sort of distillation of Obama during his time in New York?
My first reaction is goddamn Ellison was a bad motherfucker. One of the immutable facts in the movie is that Obama did carry around a tattered copy of Invisible Man. So yeah, the crucible of New York influenced him in many ways. It’s hard to imagine that four years at Occidental would have shaped him in the same ways. New York is a great place to feel small and ambiguous about your existence. It threatens to negate people but it also grants you anonymity and you can woodshed in that jazz sense. You can read and think for two years and no one asks what you’ve been doing. No one cares. And that’s one of the paradoxes of the movie. There are times when Barry feels incredibly visible and times when he feels invisible, especially in terms of race. Is he too black, not black enough?
Ellison identifies these men, loud in their silence, men deeply spectral but also rock solid. It’s easy to talk about this movie in terms of racial identity but something we were also drawn to writing the script were issues of masculinity and gender. So what the passage evokes for me in terms of the film is Barry constantly comparing himself to other men, from the b-boys on the train right at the beginning of the movie to being racially profiled by campus security.
Early on in the story Barry comes off as a know-it-all in class, but in truth he is plagued by the self-doubt of an identity crisis. He can’t find his place at Columbia, and not even in New York, though he is told more than once that above all else he is, quite simply, American. Do you think New York was Obama’s first prolonged exposure to the real truths of the American dilemma?
I have two lines of thought on that. There’s how he would have thought about it and then the “objective” answer. As he would have thought of it, yes, definitely. New York was a cultural mecca for him, particularly Harlem. I don’t think he would have told people he was transferring to Columbia or moving to New York City. I think he would have said he was moving to Harlem. The history and majesty of Harlem was alluring to him. And in ‘81 all that history was even closer. The Harlem of Malcom X, Ellison, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the Cotton Club, Lenox Lounge. But we get into so much trouble playing around with the idea that certain parts of the country are the more real America than others. The whole thing about coastal elites not understanding Midwesterners and vice versa, it’s why things are the way they are today. All America is America. I don’t know how we get away from it, the idea of one being more real than the other. I don’t know, I’m sick of it.