In ‘Barry,’ Adam Mansbach and Vikram Gandhi take a crack at portraying future president Barack Obama’s campus isolation during his Columbia years

Devon Terrell in 'Barry,' written by Adam Mansbach and Vikram Gandhi. (Netflix)
Devon Terrell in ‘Barry,’ written by Adam Mansbach and Vikram Gandhi. (Netflix)


SAN FRANCISCO — The new hit Netflix biopic, “Barry,” about a young Barack Obama includes a few good pejoratives from the author of the international bestseller, “Go the F**k to Sleep.”

The hit “not for children” children’s book shares a few speech patterns that author Adam Mansbach introduced into the first screenplay. For him and director Vikram Gandhi, the biopic is not only an immersive look at the outgoing president’s university experience — it is also a chance to introduce relevant issues to the national spotlight.

“We all had a sense that this was a way to smuggle a movie that dealt with race and identity into the cultural conversation because we know this guy was the future president of the free world,” Mansbach tells The Times of Israel.

“The movie being about Obama allows it to get made, get funded, get the attention it has gotten… Our goal going in was to make a movie that would still work were it not about Obama, to make sense, be resonant, be powerful, be interesting, even if it were about someone named Greg,” he says.

Mansbach, who is Jewish, and Gandhi, who is Indian, met while students at Columbia University, where the film is set. Mansbach now lives in Berkeley, California, where he received a 2013 Berkeley Repertory Theatre Writing Fellowship for “Go the F**k to Sleep.” He says the film helps shine a spotlight on a number of relevant issues.

At one point on screen, an older African-American man asks a young Obama about his identity. When Obama explains his mother is from Kansas and his father is from Kenya, his interlocutor replies to his Honolulu-Jakarta-California trajectory with a telling answer. “You know what that makes you?” he asks. “It makes you American.”

As Obama explores both the Ivy League and Harlem, the movie raises questions of race, identity, poverty, privilege and other issues taking on growing significance with the impending inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump. In his search for acceptance and diversity, the film speaks to growing concerns facing America today.

“The reason Vikram wanted to make the movie and I wanted to make the movie is we empathized with Barry’s experiences,” Mansbach explains. “We both understood in reading the few pages he wrote about it, the kind of alienation he felt showing up to that campus.”

The film combines both biographical elements of Obama’s life with fictional ones.

“There is a lot that is imagined and invented,” Mansbach says. “The reason we chose this time is because it’s a relatively opaque one in Obama’s life. There are not a lot of hard facts. He wrote a bit about it in [his published memoir] “Dreams From My Father,” but it’s only a few pages. By and large, it was opaque enough. It allowed me to improvise quite freely without it conflicting with anything on the record.”

In the film, 20-year-old Obama (Devon Terrell) begins his junior year as a transfer student to Columbia University. He experiences tensions between his white privileged and progressive girlfriend (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the African-American community which he begins to explore. He is the only black student in most of his classes and is bullied by police. He doesn’t seem to belong anywhere.

The film takes places over a few months, “but in some sense we are compressing events that took place over the two years he was at Columbia,” Mansbach says.

The formula appears to be working.

“There has been an incredibly gratifying amount of reviews,” says Mansbach.

Author and screenwriter Adam Mansbach. (Courtesy)
Author and screenwriter Adam Mansbach. (Courtesy)


The project, which Netflix acquired at the Toronto International Film Festival, has garnered considerable media interest since it aired on demand December 16 as a Netflix original. It has already landed Mansbach a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award, an indie film Oscar, and an NAACP Image Award.

Mansbach and African-American author W. Kamau Bell (“Totally Biased” and “United Shades of America”) will discuss the film at an upcoming event at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley on January 12, one week before Obama concludes his second term in the White House. At “‘Barry’ in Context: Film Screening & Discussion of Obama’s Coming-of-Age Story,” the pair will join the JCC’s CEO Amy Tobin in a moderated event on the film and its significance in a post-Obama America.

Cover of upcoming haggadah parody ‘For This We Left Egypt?’ by Adam Mansbach, Alan Zweibel and Dave Barry. (Courtesy)
Cover of upcoming haggadah parody ‘For This We Left Egypt?’ by Adam Mansbach, Alan Zweibel and Dave Barry. (Courtesy)

This is not Mansbach’s first good showing. His 2008 title, “The End of the Jews,” won the California Book Award. In 2013, National Public Radio and the San Francisco Chronicle named his novel “Rage is Back” a “Best Book of the Year.” Adapted for television by Mansbach and Danny Hoch, it is currently in development at USA as an hour-long drama.

He has produced a host of other titles and has published email exchanges with W. Kamau Bell. The pieces, available at Salon, are a series of published email threads that encouraged white voters to question their positions on Trump with a hashtag that went viral.

Mansbach also collaborated with comedian Alan Zweibel and humorist Dave Barry on the new parody of the Passover Haggadah, “For This We Left Egypt?” forthcoming from Flatiron Books this spring.

In 2005, Mansbach published a satirical novel about race, pop culture and violence that became a cult classic. Entitled “Angry White Black Boy,” it is taught at more than 80 schools and was adapted into a prize-winning stage play in 2008. But he is perhaps best known for the humorous “Go the F**k to Sleep,” which he dedicated to his daughter, Vivien, and a subsequent title, “You Have to F**king Eat.”

From 2009 to 2011 he served as New Voices Professor of Fiction at Rutgers University, and in 2012 he landed a Sundance Screenwriting Lab Fellowship.

It’s a far cry from his childhood in Boston, Mansbach says, where he matured in hip hop culture.

“I grew up in it at a time when it was one of the only sites in American life where you could find an honest conversation about race,” Mansbach says. “The thing about hip hop then, there was no conception of being a bystander or a fan. There were only people who participated in it. What I really was good at was rapping.”

As an English major at Columbia, Mansbach earned independent study credit publishing a hip hop magazine with an academic bent. After graduating, Mansbach went on to earn a masters in creative writing. Much like “Barry’s” on-screen 104-minute journey, Mansbach once lived where the film was shot. He became intimately familiar with Harlem, low-income public housing projects and rough neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan — as well as the questions of race and identity reflected in the film.

As for his own identity, Mansbach says he is involved in “unorganized Jewish life… My own life is both unorganized and Jewish.”

Mansbach’s parents did not share the same socioeconomic background.

“My father came from a lower middle class background and my mother’s was more upper middle class background,” Mansbach says. “I wasn’t doing this to rebel against my parents. My parents were supportive of all the politics that came out of hip hop from race and racial justice and inequity, and the inequality that was endemic to America was something I got wind of at a very young age.”

For Mansbach, the struggle over race and identity was deeply connected with writing and the arts.

“It was part of my understanding that you could use words to speak truth to power. And if you were involved in hip hop in the ’80s, to be a white kid doing that was totally anomalous. To leave your comfort zone, it basically meant being the only white kid in the room most of the time. It made me look at the subjectivity of whiteness in a way this society does not encourage,” he says.

And yet, the picture is not about Mansbach or Gandhi, the director.

“We empathized with what Obama went through at the time,” Mansbach says. “My experiences informed the ways I wrote the scenes but they are not based on my own experiences… It’s all got to come from your own understanding but to get it right, you have to speculate about the character, not about you. It has to be character-based.”

In “Barry,” newcomer Terrell portrays Obama over the two years the president-to-be spent in New York City. Besides his co-star Taylor-Joy, other cast members include Ellar Coltrane, Ashley Judd, Jason Mitchell, Jenna Elfman, and Avi Nash. Among a few points of Jewish interest are Obama’s interactions with the Black Hebrews, an icon of Harlem then and now, as well as then-mayor Ed Koch, who calls upon his electorate to vote in a television clip playing in the background during a scene with Obama and his fictionalized white girlfriend, a composite character based on the president’s college dating experiences.

“Barry” is the second film featuring the outgoing president. It began production one month after the first pic, “Southside With You,” gained interest at the Sundance Film Festival. “Southside” depicts Obama’s wooing of his wife, Michelle, in Chicago in 1989. Mansbach says he hasn’t seen the film.

Meanwhile, Mansbach, Ghandi and their third creative partner, producer Dana O’Keefe, are collaborating on another project, not yet public. “We’re keeping the band together,” Mansbach says.

As reported by The Times of Israel