Around this time every year I begin to be deluged by DVD’s and Vimeo links geared to the sort of middle-brow films that Hollywood studios submit for consideration to members of New York Film Critics Online for our annual awards meeting in early December. If you’ve ever seen something by Merchant-Ivory, you’ll probably know the kind of movie I’m talking about.
When Netflix sent me an email with a link to “Barry”, a biopic about Obama’s time at Columbia University that premieres on Friday, December 16, 2016, my first reaction was to put in the trash just like one of those solicitations I used to get from Nigerian generals before SpamAssassin kicked in.
But since it was received so close to election day, I decided to watch the film and give it the spanking I am sure it would deserve as well as use it as a peg for some ruminations on the Obama presidency and the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Studio boss Sam Goldwyn once said “Just write me a comedy. Messages are for Western Union”. Although I don’t write films, I do like to review them and wouldn’t dream of not including a message while I am at it.
I suppose that “Barry” was made to exploit the same sort of gauzy hero worship that was on display in “Southside With You”, a date film made this year about Obama’s first date with his future wife. I avoided that one like the plague. “Barry” aspires to something higher, an examination of the search for racial identity that pervaded much of “Dreams from My Father”. To give the devil his due, I found Obama’s memoir a thoughtful and engaging work even though it never would have persuaded me to vote for the man. As someone still steeped in troglodyte Trotskyite ways of thinking, I refuse to vote for capitalist parties.
According to Greg Grandin, Obama modeled “Dreams from My Father” on Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” written in 1952. Ellison’s novel no longer gets the attention it once got when I first read it as part of a freshman year extracurricular project to educate myself about the existentialist classics. Ellison, who taught at Bard just a couple of years before I arrived and who was legendary for his bar fights, saw Negritude in existential rather than social terms. As an embittered former member of the CP, Ellison rejected the idea of writing a protest novel. Since he began writing in a period of deep reaction, it is no surprise that he would turn his back on political action especially since he associated that with the discredited Stalinist party.
For Ellison, being invisible meant being invisible to whites. For Obama, who is seen reading “Invisible Man” upon arriving at Columbia, it is not so much invisibility that confronts him but finding a place for himself as someone of mixed race. Screenwriter Adam Mansbach made the decision—regrettably—to introduce plot elements that drive this message home with a sledge hammer rather than a paintbrush.
Barry, as he is known at the time, is always embroiled in confrontations either with Blacks who see him as too white or by whites for being too Black. The film relies on rather melodramatic incidents that likely never occurred. For example, he is stopped twice by a campus security guard who demands that he show him an ID. To start with, 116th street is a thoroughfare that runs through the campus. If Columbia began forcing African-Americans to show papers every time they walked through the campus like it was Mississippi, there would have been an uprising to make 1968 look tame by comparison. In another scene, when Barry is returning back to his apartment on Amsterdam and 109th street, he stops to chat with a Latino neighbor who occasionally bums a cigarette from him. When Obama jokingly informs him that he needs to pay him back with a fresh pack one of these days, a Black man sitting next to the neighbor jumps up and demands that Obama eat his words that he has regarded as a bullying threat rather than an innocent joke. He points a gun at Obama to show that he means business. None of this seems even slightly plausible.
To dramatize Obama’s search for racial identity, Mansbach invents a white girlfriend named Charlotte who figures in a latter-day “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” plot element. Unlike the Poitier film, the white parents are “enlightened”, including a dad who supposedly took part in civil rights protests wearing a pony tail (Mansbach does not seem too informed about how activist men wore their hair in the Deep South in the sixties.) Now a fundraiser for liberal politicians, the dad runs into Obama in the men’s room at the Yale Club prior to meeting him at the dinner table upstairs. After washing his hands, the dad asks him if he would be so kind as to pass him some paper towels, which he does. This leads to leaving a $5 tip on the sink on the assumption that Obama was a washroom attendant. Once again, this is highly implausible because such attendants (those that still exist in NY) generally wear white jackets rather than elegant navy-blue business suits as Obama was wearing and they give you a cloth towel, often a warm one. (I have a vague memory of all this from about 30 years ago during my decadent Goldman-Sachs days.) And to top it all off, when he is finally introduced to Obama at the dining table, the dad has no memory of meeting him in the men’s room. How Adam Mansbach wrote such a lead-footed scene is simply beyond me.
I could have forgiven all this if not for a later scene in which Obama has shown up at a wedding on Charlotte’s parents’ estate. At one point her mother says that she’d like to introduce him to a couple he’d find very simpatico. That turns out to be James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs, whose connection to Obama appears to be solely on the basis that they are a mixed race couple like his parents. Grace Lee Boggs was a legendary revolutionary of Chinese descent who died last year at the age of 100. James Boggs was a working-class activist from Detroit who wrote “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook” in 1963.
This was a perfect setup for a conversation that might have made up for all the nonsense that had preceded it. But, unfortunately the opportunity was squandered. The scene lasted about a minute and had them reciting platitudes. When Obama tells the couple about having been brought up in Indonesia and Hawaii, Grace Lee smiles and says, “That makes you all the more American”. As he is about to return to his table, James Boggs bids him farewell, urging him to take up the baton since “life is such a beautiful struggle”. What was Mansbach’s inspiration for this dialog? A Hallmarks Greeting Card display?
Adam Mansbach graduated Columbia in 1998 and has left-liberal credentials going back to the seventh grade when he protested to have the Black Panthers included in his history class curriculum. In 2006 he co-edited “A Fictional History of the United States (With Huge Chunks Missing)” with T. Cook, a collection of articles written in the spirit of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the USA”. He also wrote the introduction to Boots Riley’s “Tell Homeland Security-We Are the Bomb”. All of this suggested that he might have written a more intelligent and dramatically effective film but perhaps the studios persuaded him to dumb down his script. “Barry” has a 92 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and I suppose that this is all that matters even if I plan to post mine with a rotten.
As I said earlier, the material in “Dreams from My Father” has a highly cinematic quality. If I were to write a screenplay, I’d emphasize Obama’s political evolution, which in many ways is a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress for American liberalism, except following the opposite trajectory of Bunyan’s tale that starts in hell and ends up in heaven. All you need to do is look at the press coverage of the past two days and you’ll know what I mean.
One of my favorite scenes in Obama’s memoir has him chatting with Franklin Marshall Davis, the Communist poet and journalist who he relied on for fatherly advice as a young man in Hawaii. Obama writes:
What had Frank called college? An advanced degree in compromise. I thought back to the last time I had seen the old poet, a few days before I left Hawaii. We had made small talk for a while; he complained about his feet, the corns and bone spurs that he insisted were a direct result of trying to force African feet into European shoes. Finally he asked me what I expected to get out of college. I told him that I didn’t know. He shook his big, hoary head.
“Well,” he said, “that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t know. You’re just like the rest of those young cats out here. All you know is that college is the next thing you are supposed to do. And the people who are young enough to know better, who fought all those years for your right to go to college—they’re just so happy to see you in there that they won’t tell you the truth. The real price of admission.”
“And what’s that?”
“Leaving your race at the door,” he said. “Leaving your people behind.” He studied me over the top of his reading glasses. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you that you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the same.”
How prescient Frank Davis was. It turned out to be an oval office and more fancy dinners than the 18-year old Obama could have dreamed of. It also turned out that Obama was actually running things for eight years even though they hardly served Black interests.
Last night I heard Jeffrey Toobin on CNN say that “Trump is going to drive a truck through the Obama administration record.” Once Obamacare is history, what will be left of the past 8 years except the drone strikes, the favoritism toward Wall Street, and the inexorable decline of American living standards? Once you get past the hand-wringing at The Nation, you will soon realize that the Trump administration will continue along the same lines of the Obama administration just as he had continued with Bush before him.
As Marx said in the Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” And who better to look after the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie except its most powerful financial firm? According to a source close to the Trump campaign, the president-elect plans to appoint his campaign finance chairman Steven Mnuchin to be Secretary of the Treasury. The rightwing Washington Free Beacon reported on May 5, 2016:
Mnuchin has contributed to committees supporting Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump’s likely competitor in the general election for president in the fall. He contributed $1,000 to Clinton’s New York Senate campaign in 2000 and sent $4,100 to Friends of Hillary in 2004 and 2005. Mnuchin also contributed $2,300 to Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2007.
Additionally, in 2004, Mnuchin contributed $10,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, $2,000 to Obama’s Illinois Senate campaign, and $500 to John Kerry’s presidential campaign.
Mnuchin also sent $2,300 to Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2007.
Trump cheered Mnuchin’s “successful financial background” in a statement Thursday.
Common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie indeed.