In 2015, when Vikram Gandhi was making a movie about Barack Obama’s college years in New York, the filmmaker knew the finished product would arrive at a bigger sweet moment. “We didn’t have the same optimism that much of the country had when he was running,” said Gandhi.
Yet the result, a lively take on the actor’s experiences at Colombia in the early eighties now available on Netflix, speaks to the zeitgeist even more than Gandhi could have anticipated. In “Barry,” a disillusioned Obama (Devon Terrell) grapples with his racial identity while dating a white classmate (Anya Taylor-Joy) and examining the country’s economic disparities at the height of Ronald Reagan’s conservative government.
With Terrell’s subtle performance as its guide, “Barry” provides a keen window into the national mood among many young progressive Americans some 30 years ago, but it also picks up on echoes of those sentiments reverberating in the wake of the 2016 election. “We’ve seen politics go from being a high pursuit to being led by someone who embodies a much darker side of humanity,” Gandhi told me in a conversation a few weeks after Donald Trump’s victory.
For anyone struggling to comprehend that situation, “Barry” offers a keen reminder of society’s bumpy history with progress — Obama’s ethos of hope and change needed to react against something, after all — and it even manages to find a bright side. “It feels really relevant to see Obama in a different light,” Gandhi said, “and remember that the dream this man embodied is the American dream that still exists.”
Matt Dinerstein, Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions
To that end, “Barry” strikes a telling contrast with that other Obama movie released earlier this year, Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You.” Built on the template of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and its sequel, Tanne’s cutesy recreation of Barack and Michelle’s first date is pure sugary escapism, an opportunity to relish the chic intellectual brand of America’s first family. “It isn’t the kind of movie I would’ve directed,” Gandhi said, referring to Tanne’s effort as a “romcom.” And indeed, while “Barry” is the smarter, more pointed look at the foundation of Obama’s beliefs, “Southside” taps into the euphoria surrounding his image that helped propel him to power.
Somewhere in between those two extremes lies the essence of movies in the age of Obama, a chapter of American film history that is now coming to an end.
As usual given the amount of time that film productions can take, our national cinema didn’t tap into the outcome of the 2008 election overnight. That year, movies such as Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop,” with its naturalistic look at immigrant children in Queens, explored the desperation of a country hobbled by the recession and class issues. The big movie fantasy that year was “Slumdog Millionaire,” which may as well have taken place within the minds of the disenfranchised kids at the center of Bahrani’s story.
The next few years showed similar reverberations from the Bush years. “The Hurt Locker” and “In the Loop” illustrated two sides of the inanity of war and the dysfunctional figures responsible for it, while “Medicine for Melancholy” touched on the aftermath of the housing crisis with a pair of hip young African Americans wandering San Francisco and debating gentrification. “The Girlfriend Experience” landed in early 2009 to explore how the empowerment of America’s wealthier one-percent gave rise to a new economy of cutthroat survival tactics. Even by 2011, movies such as “Meek’s Cutoff” were still probing the scars of aimless wars and their impact on people simply looking to survive.
Then came the shift. By depicting the killing of Osama bin Laden by the American military, “Zero Dark Thirty” was the first major commercial release to touch on a signature achievement of the Obama administration, and even though it had a dark imperialistic edge that showed the residual effect of the previous administration, the movie’s sense of wandering through a labyrinthine conflict and finding some modicum of a resolution felt like the first true movie of the Obama age.
The Moment Arrives
The next year, Obama cinema reached its zenith with “12 Years a Slave.” Steve McQueen’s lyrical survival tale chronicled the plight of Washington free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) getting kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. While hardly the first movie to deal with slavery, its profile suggested a shift in audience sensibilities — as well as commercial expectations. “I really think it’s because there’s a black president now,” McQueen told me back then, when I asked him at the Toronto International Film Festival why the project finally got made after so many years of gestation. “Also, with the unfortunate killing of Trayvon Martin and the conversations surrounding the Voting Rights Act, people are ready for something like this.”
By 2014, America had grown used to the idealism of the Obama age. Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making “Boyhood” offered an optimistic vision of growing into a world filled with possibilities, while “Birdman” suggested the biggest problems with the world were pithy issues of self-regard. Only Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” with its colorful fictional country careening into dark wartime circumstances in the final act, hinted at the idea that growing too comfortable can be dangerous.
That mounting paranoia continued to creep into an otherwise progressive landscape the following year: Even as “Tangerine” pushed for more inclusive storytelling, “Ex Machina” suggested we’re not as smart as we think, and “Mad Max: Fury Road” asserted that the apocalypse wasn’t an unthinkable outcome.
A Final Stage
This year’s movies concluded the Obama age by capturing a unique form of anxiety and frustration. In “Captain Fantastic,” Viggo Mortensen attempts to raise his family in the wilderness, away from the trappings of society, before finally giving into the demands of a world beyond his control. But the essence of the narrative driving this election season was particularly well-captured by two insightful releases, “Certain Women” and “American Honey.”
Reichardt’s Montana-set “Certain Women” was especially prescient about the driving force of the election, with its triptych of stories exploring the kind of working-class alienation gleefully exploited by the Trump campaign. That same world comes into focus with “American Honey,” in which hordes of young people careen through the midwest in a state of complete anarchy, selling magazine subscriptions to sustain their hedonistic lives and driven by resentment for a world devoid of opportunities. Not for nothing does Shia LaBeouf, as the group’s alpha male, describe his fancy salesman wardrobe as “Donald Trumpish.”
When I spoke to Reichardt about the sentiments of a rural America, she didn’t mince her words. “Certain Women” is bookended by the story of a disgruntled woodsman (Jared Harris) infuriated that he can’t receive compensation for a workplace injury, his privilege melting around him. “Who gets to live until you’re 50 unless you’re a straight white American man from some kind of middle class?” Reichardt asked, explaining her character’s worldview. “He’s infuriated to know that this system is not going to work for him. It’s such a privileged place to be.”
That disconnect from the world stimulated many voters to try and change it, much in the same way an entirely different voting bloc was galvanized in 2008. Obama’s own ascent was stimulated by a desire to shake up the government. In “Barry,” the young Obama can’t stand the conditions under which his country operates. “The president is an actor!” he laments at one point.
The shrewdest reflection of the mentality governing our country’s latest experiences comes from elsewhere. In Pablo Larraín’s “Neruda,” the poet and political activist Pablo Neruda laments the election of its vehemently anti-communist president, but doesn’t shirk responsibility for that outcome. “We all elected him,” Neruda asserts. “All of us idiots.”
What Comes Next
If anything, the final stage of Obama-era movies speaks to the danger of growing too cozy with a good thing. “Barack Obama embodies this idea of America’s future,” Gandhi told me, “an idea that, in the last few months we’ve come to question.”
We can expect the movies to keep probing this struggle. In 2012, the critic J. Hoberman wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books titled “A New Obama Cinema” that searched for the early stirrings of just that. This may be an appropriate moment to consider what movies in the age of Trump could look like. The possibilities are vast, though they’re certainly less likely to reflect the ethos of “Make America Great Again” than to assail it.
“It’s important that artists stand for something now,” Gandhi told me. “That’s probably going to happen more and more during this presidency. Some activism has given birth to art, and maybe it’s time for it go the other way.”
Like many filmmakers and others in the last few weeks, Gandhi called for vigilance. “You have a man who’s been elected who wants to discredit all sources of information aside from himself, which typical of any dictator,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the film industry to never normalize what’s going on, to try to tell stories that are important. The vision we have for America is not something we should flinch from, or else it’ll be discredited by the part of the population that doesn’t think it matters as long as they can pay the rent.”
Judging by the past eight years, it’s likely to take some time for Trump-era movies to kick in, but there’s no question that the real-life movie of America’s struggles will continue to play out on the world stage. Earlier this summer, I deemed the 2016 presidential election as the summer’s best blockbuster; it has since morphed into a tragedy, but now it’s time to gear up for the sequel.