In their well-tooled yet ultimately hurried profile “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry,” Washington, D.C., natives Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer do manage an almost affectionate, only-in-America approach to the activist-turned-mayor-turned-punchline, who is living proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Appropriately selected as the closing-night preem just across the District line at SilverDocs, the pic aires Aug. 10 on HBO, and will be a de rigueur disc purchase for political junkies and anyone who followed Barry’s very public downfall.
Few familiar with Barry from his notorious 1990 drug bust for smoking crack with a former mistress in a downtown hotel room — where he famously told the federal agents who collared him, “The bitch set me up” — can be expected to know that when he began as a young, handsome political firebrand in the nation’s capital, he had the potential, points out author and journalist Harry Jaffe, to be Martin Luther King Jr.’s successor, “a leading political figure of our era.”
Flor and Oppenheimer begin the pic during Barry’s 2004 comeback campaign for city council representing its poorest ward, where emotions run high: “We ain’t glad you back,” jeers one constituent. “You glad you back.”
Pic then charts Barry’s glory years as Washington’s second mayor from 1979-91 and the twin demons of alcohol and drugs that derailed his idealistic mission to create jobs for the city’s disenfranchised and majority black population. At his side during those years was wife Effi, who became increasingly disillusioned even as she maintained the facade. Tellingly, the helmers never reveal she was his third wife.
As a testament to both his durability and stubborn popularity, Barry was elected to city council after serving six months on the crack charge, then became the city’s fourth mayor from 1995-99. And not only did he win the 2004 council race, but he was re-elected in a landslide in 2008 and remains there today.
Docu also serves as an unofficial tribute to Washington’s veteran press corps, with interviews and vintage pics and clips by Bruce Johnson, Tom Sherwood, Adrienne Washington and local news anchor Jim Vance, whose daughter, Amani, gets an associate producer credit. All exhibit respect for Barry, as well as various degrees of exasperation at his self-destructive tendencies.
Conspicuously absent are personal strands that would presumably have bogged down the pic’s momentum. These include Barry’s second wife, Mary Treadwell, with whom he co-founded jobs initiative Pride, Inc., and who was later jailed for stealing federal funds; fourth wife Cora Masters Barry, who helped engineer his post-jailhouse political comeback; and such embarrassing incidents as the 1995 snowstorm that paralyzed Washington as the mayor watched the Super Bowl in California.
Tech contributions are smooth, with archival footage particularly crisp. Vintage tunes from Donny Hathaway, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Kurtis Blow and Alice Cooper (“Elected,” natch) aid in establishing period verisimilitude. Per the website of production company Cactus Three, the pic was known at one time as “Marion Barry: Not Down for the Count.”