The Nine Lives of Marion Barry
HBO Documentaries keep their super human hot streak alive with The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, directed by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, which chronicle the life and times of one of the most controversial political figures of our age. The filmmaking itself has a cookie cutter feel to it; talking heads, historical clips, so on and so forth. But the levelheaded discussion that they bring to the table is thoughtful and intriguing.
The film moves forward on two plot lines, which take place at two different points in time. There is his 2004 comeback bid for Washington DC city council and his general biography as we see his rise from militancy to mayor and then his fall to national disgrace. However, through all of Barry’s troubles, he has kept one of the most insanely loyal group of constituents that has ever been known. They have happily and enthusiastically stood by him as their city fell to pieces on his watch, as he was caught smoking crack (on camera no less), and as he served time in prison. There devotion is admirable, in a scary Kool-Aid drinking kind of way.
Barry’s story begins in DC in the mid 1960's. The directors are very eager to compare DC back then to a plantation due to their lack of representative government. He rises to power by aggressively standing up for African Americans and by hitching his wagon to Martin Luther King Jr's star. Then his biggest break came in 1977 when he was shot in the stomach by Muslim terrorists who were taking over federal buildings. From there he is elected mayor of DC and there is no question that his rise to power is being equated to Barack Obama's recent victories as the words "hope" and "change" are used liberally.
Sadly, just as Barry was reaching the heights he had dreamed of, his demons began to sneak in. His taste for drugs, booze and the ladies is neither glossed over nor glorified. Flor and Oppenheimer do touch on the point that perhaps his problems with law enforcement was brought about by the desire of white Republicans to drive him out of town. After his arrest for drug possession the officer in charge of the press conference laughs off a question concerning the possibility that race played a role in him being targeted. It's hard to stomach, especially after the actual video of his arrest is shown and we realize just how blatant the entrapment was.
The other half of the film deals with his race against Sandra Seegars for a seat on DC's city council. Seegars, who goes by the odd political nickname "SS," provides the most pointed criticism of Barry. You get the feeling throughout that both sides have a point. Certainly Barry has helped out DC's black community in a multitude of ways AND he's a drug-addicted egomaniac who is ultimately in it only for himself.
The nature of his drug addiction is never really addressed and that is unfortunate as it would be interesting to explore how much of his inability to kick the habit was due to the invincibility given to him by the voters. As Chris Rock says: "If you get caught smoking crack at McDonald's you can't get your job back"; but the voters have, time and time again, given him back jobs of far greater importance. Thanks to this small gift of a film people will once again be debating the Marion Barry saga.
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