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An ‘audacious’ cinematic portrait of a young Obama

Devon Terrell  plays Barack Obama in “Barry,” a Netflix film that focuses on the two years Obama spent in the early ’80s at Columbia University.
Devon Terrell plays Barack Obama in “Barry,” a Netflix film that focuses on the two years Obama spent in the early ’80s at Columbia University.Netflix

There are many things we’ve all come to know about the outgoing president. Politics aside, we know he shoots lefty. We know he adores (and often defers to) his wife, and we know he has struggled to kick his nicotine habit.

Most Americans have heard or read about Barack Obama’s childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia and his ties to Kansas. Most know something about his studies at Harvard Law School, his community organizing in Chicago, and his rise to prominence with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Less, however, has been reported on the two years Obama spent in the early ’80s completing his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. That made the period the perfect time and setting for a “retrofitting” of those formative years for the future president, says Adam Mansbach, who wrote the screenplay for “Barry,” a new coming-of-age film that premieres Friday on Netflix.

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Mansbach, a Newton native who has written several novels about race and identity and had a No. 1 bestseller with his irreverent 2011 children’s book, “Go the F**k to Sleep,” says that, as a fellow Columbia alumnus and a student of hip-hop’s origins in New York, he felt like the right man for the job. Speaking on the phone from his home in Berkeley, Calif., he’d just learned about his nomination for a Film Independent Spirit Award for his work on the script.

“It’s funny — I felt strangely comfortable doing it,” he says about writing the script. “There was a safety net in that this was a very opaque time in his life. That’s why we chose it.” Mansbach developed the story of Obama’s social and political awakening with director Vikram Gandhi, another Columbia grad. The film features newcomer Devon Terrell (“a brilliant kid, a star,” Mansbach says) as the young Obama.

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Told through a series of vignettes set on the Columbia campus, on the caged basketball courts and in the squalid apartments of Harlem, and on the social circuits of the well-intentioned liberal elite, the film imagines Obama’s struggle to fit in and to come to terms with his mixed-race background.

Mansbach, whose novels include “Angry Black White Boy” and “The End of the Jews,” acknowledges that some might view his willingness to imagine a back story for the 44th president as a kind of audacity.

“I think the conception of the project overall is a bit audacious,” he admits, quickly adding with a laugh, “I wouldn’t want to be involved in anything that wasn’t. I’m always interested in what are the risks, the stakes, how to reinvent the form or break the rules of whatever the genre is.”

His goal for the film was to tell a character-driven story that could stand alone, rather than making a journalistic biopic.

“We wanted the movie to steer clear of these big epiphany moments,” he says. “We felt the film should leave him still very much in transition.”

Newton native Adam Mansbach, who wrote the screenplay for “Barry,” is best known for his irreverent best-selling children’s book “Go the F**k to Sleep.”
Newton native Adam Mansbach, who wrote the screenplay for “Barry,” is best known for his irreverent best-selling children’s book “Go the F**k to Sleep.”Jakub Mosur for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

The writer, who is 40, felt at home re-creating the New York of the early ’80s, having immersed himself from a very young age in the topical verse of rap pioneers such as Public Enemy and KRS-One. A “precocious” kid, son of the Globe’s recently retired page-one editor, Charles F. Mansbach, he began challenging his teachers when he was still in middle school.

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When his history teacher began introducing the class to Europe in the Middle Ages, Mansbach demanded to know why they weren’t learning about the Black Panthers. Invited to address a mayor’s luncheon as an eighth-grader, he delivered a speech that questioned the curriculum of the Newton school system. Impressed, his civil-law teacher gave him a book of Malcolm X speeches and told him, “Go be a rabble-rouser.”

In junior high and in high school at Newton South, Mansbach befriended several Metco students from Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury. Through them he explored the roots of rap (a gentle hip-hop inflection infuses his speech), and he honed his beliefs about what he felt was “a pervasive hypocrisy and silence around race in the supposedly super-liberal state of Massachusetts. There was a conversation that needed to happen that wasn’t happening.”

Andre C. Willis, now a professor of religious studies at Brown University, befriended the young Mansbach when Willis was teaching in Newton. Together they helped organize a student walkout in response to the 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. Willis later arranged a gig for Mansbach as a roadie for the jazz great Elvin Jones.

Having studied at Yale and Harvard Divinity School, Willis writes in an e-mail, “I had listened to a ton of smart white kids for a long time, but I knew Adam exceeded most of them in both his commitment to racial equality and his sophisticated understanding of race.”

At home, Mansbach was surrounded with elders who worked with words and themes of social justice. His maternal grandfather was Benjamin Kaplan, a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice who had been a key member of the prosecution team that developed the case for the Nuremberg trials. His grandmother was Felicia Lamport, a poet who wrote a long-running syndicated feature for the Globe called the Muse of the Week in Review.

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Her poems were rhyming and satirical, notes Mansbach — “a very close corollary to hip-hop, actually. While KRS-One was making songs about police brutality and dissing Reagan and Bush, my grandmother was doing essentially the same thing.” One of Lamport’s best-known poems is “The Love Song of R. Milhous Nixon,’’ written during the Watergate era.

Mansbach now has an 8-year-old daughter of his own — she’s already making videos of herself rapping — and a baby on the way with his current partner. He spends part of each summer on Martha’s Vineyard, as his family has done for years.

He’s never encountered the Obamas during their vacations on the island, he says. Before writing the script for “Barry,” his closest brush with Obama came in 2012, when he wrote a satirical campaign ad that featured the actor Samuel L. Jackson. Mansbach was pleased to hear through the grapevine that the president had taken to reciting it while backstage at rallies, mimicking Jackson’s voice.

The ad was called “Wake the F**k Up.”


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.