In director Vikram Gandhi’s new film Barry, American citizens who have been waking up in fear every morning are offered the hope of a communal solution.
Some context that you already know: A man with no prior political experience has been elected to become the Leader of the Free World, despite losing the popular vote. Donald J. Trump, a notorious philanderer, real estate developer, and reality television star, will unseat current president Barack Obama in fewer than two weeks. After eight years of social progress and liberal civility, the very worst monsters have emerged from the closet of American history. Bigotry, sexism, and racism have proliferated in mainstream society to a degree unheard of since the Civil Rights Movement, and Obama’s political legacy is on the brink of collapsing under the weight of Trump’s astounding arrogance.
In response, what are those American citizens who did not elect a man that they see as being utterly unfit for public office to do in Trump’s America? If many of us hope to continue holding our heads high as Americans, silent acquiescence or adolescent rebellion simply will not do. Writing paragraphs-long rants on Facebook and taking to Twitter to call further attention to Trump’s omnipresent temper tantrums only feed into the machinations of anger, fear, and hate that have fueled Trump’s revolution. Sparring with our friends, colleagues, and relatives further divides us as the specter of a second Cold War looms on the horizon.
In the face of Trump’s America, it will become the duty and responsibility of every single one of us who does not stand for social intolerance to practice basic human decency as a cornerstone of our interactions with each and every person we meet.
It’s a tall order, especially for those marginalized into a danger zone by the votes of their party opposites, but there is a reason Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election last November, and it’s not solely because of the alleged Russian hacking of the Electoral College. Hillary lost because she assumed that America was made up of people only like her. Hillary denigrated and ignored wide swaths of Middle America, a region and population of voters who had just as much right to being heard as the bi-coastal, college educated ones who were so surprised that so many people didn’t vote for someone who had capriciously marginalized their very humanity. Trump may yet prove to have been the greater evil, but Hillary was no white knight.
So who is there to inspire us?
Comparatively, Barack Obama was a more widely respected world leader than either nominee from this past election season. Or at least he resembled the idea more than each candidate, especially if Gandhi’s Barry serves as any indication of how his presidency will be remembered years down the road. Whatever you might think about Obama’s policies and actions as president, it’s hard to shake the memory of the iconic Shepard Fairey campaign poster that indelibly equated Obama with hope itself.
As Obama, American-Australian actor Devon Terrell embodies the very best we can hope for in ourselves and one another as citizens of this great nation. And Gandhi takes the time to outline the many ways in which Obama has come to define a democracy as an institution that strives to represent all its people, regardless of color, creed, or gender. Barry presents the case for an American dream that is still in its infancy, as economic and political divisions still seek to divide us as a nation from seeing one another as brothers and sisters.
At several particularly volatile moments throughout Barry, Barack Obama – serving as a cinematic character meant to stand in for the “Invisible Man” of Ralph Ellison’s highly influential American novel of social satire – confronts the many ways in which he is still seen as a pejorative other. Born of a white woman from Kansas and a Kenyan governmental economist, Obama is presented to the audience as uncomfortably without a people to call his own. Isolated from his white Ivy League classmates’ 20th century apathy towards the repercussions of slavery, and failing to fit into the economically impoverished Harlem projects, Obama is a man without a country for the larger part of Barry.
Then along comes a moment of narrative clarity that, though contrived, nevertheless elicits the revelation that America is a nation built of a great mixing and integration of different cultures and nationalities. Obama’s multicultural heritage is not seen as something he must transcend in Barry but is instead the very emblem of a country of disparate races, creeds, and genders. America, as one character metaphorically describes it, is a gumbo that derives its distinctive flavor from many different peoples and ethnicities.
Trump will be the next president of the United States, but he will inherit the reins to a nation on the brink of unrest. In that light, watching Barry takes on a new resonance. Instead of seeking to define all of the ways in which we stand apart from the values and policies espoused by Trump’s campaign, Barry seeks to find the ways in which we all must learn to live together. With the nation heading into entirely uncharted territory, the majority who voted against Trump will have to continue to uphold the values that Obama has come to represent. Hope must triumph over despair, and civility is the only way to remain out of step with the march of nationalism.
Gandhi’s film often veers too far into melodramatic territory, yet in the infancy of Trump’s America, familiar narrative beats have already begun to look alien. Coming to terms with this new reality is going to take a whole lot of bravery and the strengthening of our collective moral fiber across party lines. Trump is our president-elect, but that doesn’t mean that all of the progress that Obama made over the course of the past eight years will be forgotten. Obama still stands for hope in the eyes of many Americans, and Barry articulates that ethos with a much needed warmth and sincerity.
Featured Image: Netflix