- Marion Barry, during one of his first few lives.
How one responds to The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, a documentary out on DVD today, probably has less to do with race than your familiarity with D.C. politics. I was a New York resident when I saw the film on HBO last summer, and all I knew about Barry was what everyone knew about him: that, while mayor, he'd been videotaped smoking crack in a hotel room, was subsequently convicted, and still, somehow, won a fourth term after his release from prison. Watching Nine Lives, I was just another participant in the national head-shaking over D.C.'s laughable — in the way of a drunken clown — political circus.
But others, especially those more familiar with (and affected by) Barry's career, reacted differently to the movie. The Post's Marc Fisher wrote that it "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," while Sophie Gilbert of the Washingtonian said it "gives the Mayor for Life a relatively easy ride." But the knives didn't come out until Jason Cherkis's review in the City Paper:
Except for the face-cream moment, Barry is filmed in the best possible light, bathed in the glow of cheering children, either looking cool or napping behind shades — can’t tell — as he’s driven around some of the poorest blocks in the District. The rest of the film is the inevitable, tired backstory.
Cherkis had covered Barry's latest political comeback: his 2004 bid for the Ward 8 Council seat, which provides the narrative backbone of Nine Lives and which Cherkis called a "frictionless contest" with "no drama." During the last week of the campaign, which would end with Barry victorious, Cherkis "was tasked with following Barry’s every move. There was nothing to capture but his decrepitude, his declining Barryness. His walk had slowed. He campaigned with his zipper down. He slept a lot." Co-directors Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, he adds, "don't capture so much as a frame of that."
As a D.C. outsider — and still one, for the most part — I saw everything that Cherkis couldn't. When I first watched the film, and when I revisited it last night, I witnessed plenty of "decrepitude" and "declining Barryness." The slow walk is apparent, as is his somnolence. The Barry of '04, as portrayed in Nine Lives, is a sickly and petty man who, even at this late stage, continues to play the victim. Refusing to acknowledge, let alone apologize for, the damage he has caused the District, he comes across as a pathetic, fallen hero utterly lacking in self-awareness. If that's getting off easy, then I guess I still have a lot to learn about Marion Barry.
It took some convincing before he agreed to this film. Flor, a 47-year-old Glover Park resident, wrote him letters for six months, but he refused to meet with her. So one day she ambushed him at lunch at the Renaissance Mayflower. "He wasn't very nice," she says. "He didn't receive me very well, but I did force myself on him and sat down, and I ended up paying for his lunch." Barry remained skeptical. "I'm white. He wanted to make sure it was someone who really, really understood the history and where he came from." She managed to convince him, and before she knew it she was flying to Mississippi with him to meet his mother.
Not that having Barry's approval made filming easy. He blew off nine out of every ten appointments, according to Flor. "He's a very mercurial person," she says. "I wish I had a dollar for every time he hung up the phone on me, but that's kind of Marion Barry." He's also "not a very introspective person," she adds, which only made it more difficult to convince him to open up.
Nine Lives doesn't cover all of Barry's lives, of which he seems to have more than nine. The film mentions, in a coda, his testing positive for cocaine for a hearing about his tax evasion, but not his arrest on charges of stalking an ex-girlfriend. Is it time, perhaps, for an update on this baffling, never-ending roller coaster of a career?
Flor says no.
"I don't think anything incredible is going to happen to change the ending of the film," she says. But then, as if realizing she's just doubted Marion Barry's ability to make news, Flor adds, "Also, you've got to walk away."