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Arts in Review

Netflix Obama biopic insightful, but only scratches surface

Netflix has, at this point, solidified its status as an entertainment powerhouse as far as its original serialized content is concerned. That’s old news. House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Narcos’ success speaks for itself. And the almost obscene level of success that Stranger Things’ first season enjoyed backs up the notion that whoever it is that’s making decisions regarding serialized content over at Netflix is knocking it out of the park.

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Netflix has, at this point, solidified its status as an entertainment powerhouse as far as its original serialized content is concerned. That’s old news. House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Narcos’ success speaks for itself. And the almost obscene level of success that Stranger Things’ first season enjoyed backs up the notion that whoever it is that’s making decisions regarding serialized content over at Netflix is knocking it out of the park.

Original feature-length films have been an entirely different story. Netflix has struggled to draw out the same level of fervour from viewers for original movies as it has for shows. The only exception being documentaries, such as Liz Garbus’ 2015 What Happened, Miss Simone? (Which you should watch if you haven’t already.) And even then, most of these kinds of documentaries lack the wide-ranging appeal of their show counterparts.

Enter Barry, a movie so straightforward that its characters (and even acts) can be reduced to labels. Take young Obama’s boozing, womanizing roommate, entirely out of place at Harvard, a fact Obama (portrayed by Devon Terrell) calls him out on at some point in the movie, asking why he’s even at school. In the same vein, young Obama wonders, “Kerouac went here… where’s that scene?”

As a movie, Barry is simple and predictable. We’re not here to think. It’s a story about class and race struggle, but even that must be explained to us, in the form of Obama constantly debating with another student about how inequality stems from the history of race relations in the U.S.

“It’s always about slavery with you,” says Obama’s clearly privileged classmate.

And, I mean, he’s not wrong. To this day, he’s not wrong. The U.S. is a country whose economy thrived since its inception on the monetization of slaves, and it’s aggravating to watch a movie that struggles so profoundly to communicate such a simple truth: race relations (both in the ‘80s when the movie is set and now) have always been informed and influenced by the practice of slavery.

Some might say that’s just divisive, that to imply one group of people, today, has more privilege than another is propagating the problem. But it isn’t, and this is what’s so aggravating. Eight years after Obama’s election, and we’re still blind to the facts. Any change must be systemic change, and for that to happen, so-called passive attitudes towards race and gender must change. If anything, the movie attempts to point out how, in the mid-‘80s, inequality and oppression faced by people of colour was, in the eyes of those more privileged, not there. (After all, they themselves had suffered no such injustice.) Unknowingly benefiting from the system in place, privileged members of society found it (and still do) hard to believe that, since they themselves are not being openly discriminated against, others can’t be either.

As a movie, Barry is formulaic and uncreative, abusing expository dialogue at every turn. But what’s even more infuriating is that the same issues put forward by 1981 Obama are still entirely relevant.

Eight years after Obama’s election to the presidency, here we are, still bickering like children over whether or not race or gender matters.

Of course it fucking matters.

Wake up.

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