By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009
The film crew evidently spent years following Marion Barry around, not in search of the truth behind his positive test for cocaine, not to see whether the former mayor was still adding notches to his belt as he chatted up the women of Washington, but mainly in hopes of landing an explanation: How could this stirring figure, this inspiration to the downtrodden, have thrown it all away? Why, after breaking down the door into the palace of power, did he so cavalierly flaunt his bad behavior?
"The Nine Lives of Marion Barry," a new HBO documentary that will open at the Silverdocs film festival in Silver Spring on Saturday, keeps coming close to an answer. "Each of us has some kind of struggle in our lives," Barry says in a quiet, intimate moment in the film. "I've done some things I'm not proud of. I'm human."
But immediately, Barry pulls back, as he always has when pressed about his drug use, his womanizing or his tolerance of corruption in the government he ran.
"I don't think too much about the past," Barry tells the camera. "I look forward, I look up."
It's the same old Barry patter, the smooth charmer trying one more time to wriggle out of trouble.
Yet there is honesty and truth in this account of Barry's mysterious hold over Washington through nearly its entire history of self-rule. The straight talk comes mainly from Effi Barry, the former mayor's second wife, whose love for the man who publicly humiliated her comes through powerfully. Effi, who died in 2007, remembers their first meeting, when Marion gazed at her pocketbook and asked, "Is there anything in that bag for me?" Puzzled, Effi wondered what could possibly be in her bag for this man she'd never before spoken to.
"Your phone number," came the line from the master of come-ons. She was still charmed by the moment decades later.
Charmed, even as she remembered the "throngs of women" who always seemed to surround Barry, or the nude photos of themselves that women sent the mayor in the mail, or the drinking that was "out of control." By the late 1980s, Effi says, her husband -- the man who gave an entire generation of D.C. residents their first jobs, their paths to careers and homes -- had become "an embarrassment, an embarrassment to friends, an embarrassment to self."
And then the movie delivers another sliver of insight from the mayor himself, this time about the loneliness of power: "Friendships, hard to find," Barry mumbles. "Everybody wants this, everybody wants that."
Alas, such moments are rare in a movie that seems satisfied to limit itself to a superficial review of Barry's glorious rise from street agitator to mayor of the capital of the free world, and a highlight reel of the notorious episodes that made Barry a dependable punch line for Chris Rock, Jay Leno and David Letterman.
There have been far more successful efforts to explain the chemist-turned-civil rights activist from Itta Bena, Miss. In a famous 1990 Los Angeles Times profile that helped turn Barry into a national laughingstock, the late Bella Stumbo famously chronicled the cocky, small-hours boasts of "the Night Owl." In a New Yorker profile a few years later, David Remnick characterized Barry as "The Situationist," a street-savvy swifty who made no bones about doing whatever it took to get where he was going. The Washington City Paper's Loose Lips columnist dubbed Barry "Mayor for Life," a legend whose symbolic role as a living retort to The Man would always loom larger than whatever consequences the system could levy for his misdeeds.
But what "Nine Lives" has that the great print profiles lack is a delicious collection of archival footage from the 1960s and '70s. Here's a young, slim, goateed, dashiki-clad man the newspapers called "Marion S. Barry, Negro militant" at community meetings, asking angry young Washingtonians to rise up with him against police brutality, "dig it." As Jesse Jackson says in the movie, Barry was "a marching, picketing, protesting, Freedom Riding young man who had that fire."
Looking back, Barry the senior citizen, seen gingerly managing the stairs to his walk-up apartment in Anacostia, says, "It was time for me."
Through interviews and TV news clips, the filmmakers, Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, capture Barry's visceral appeal and early vision. ("The past was too often defined by others for us and without us," he said at his first inauguration.) But there is no attempt here to show the broader impact of Barry's dark side -- no visit to the young men with hooded, bloodshot eyes who live on the city's street corners, long past hope; no view of the sorry warehouses they dare call schools; no journey into the housing projects where those summer jobs from Mayor Barry turned out to be the only jobs too many people ever had.
The connection must be made between those scenes and the iconic image of Barry sucking the crack pipe in the Vista Hotel room, between the adoration Barry absorbs in Southeast and the moment on that FBI surveillance video when the mayor plaintively asks mistress and crack buddy Rasheeda Moore: "Give me a hug? Can I have a hug?"
Marion Barry's failings are a more serious puzzle than this film depicts. The voters' angry embrace of his return from disgrace flickers by on the screen without anyone stopping to learn just how terribly poisonous Barry's reign really was -- the cynicism he seeded among city workers in it for themselves, residents stripped of high hopes and children he taught about the reality of betrayal.
The Nine Lives of Marion Barry (78 minutes, at AFI Silver Theatre) is not rated. It will be shown at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.