In the summer of 1990, I was 16 years old and working as an intern on Capitol Hill. As one might expect of a high school student who spends his summer vacation interning for a senator--rather than, say, working as a camp counselor or hanging out at the beach--I had a somewhat inflated view of my importance. I came to work early and stayed late, certain my presence was vital to the smooth running of government. But about halfway through the summer, I put in for a day off. My boss, probably thinking I was going to do something fun, eagerly granted it. Little did she know. When the appointed day arrived, I rose from bed at 4 in the morning and, courtesy of my newly minted drivers’ license, headed down to the federal courthouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, where I joined the line of people already waiting to get in to that summer’s best show for political junkies: Washington Mayor Marion Barry’s drug trial.
Politics and Washington in the 1980s will forever be associated with Ronald Reagan. But if you lived in DC during that decade (and didn’t work for the White House), Barry was the more totemic political figure. He was responsible for whether your trash got picked up, your street got plowed, or your kindergarten teacher showed up at school each day. But it was the fact that, as often as not, these things did not happen that made him seem even more powerful. Barry’s tenure as mayor was a great high-wire act and a constant fight for political survival. Reagan may have beaten the evil empire, but Barry was expert at confounding what his supporters termed the “white power establishment”--which, depending on the day, was either the U.S. attorney, The Washington Post, the city’s white residents, or some combination of all three. The establishment, Barry always maintained, was out to get him.
And then the establishment, this time in the form of FBI, finally did--busting him in a high-end hotel room with a former model turned government informant and a crack pipe. The spectacle that ensued was sort of a proto-O.J. trial, with the racially polarized views of the case and the circus atmosphere at the courthouse. On the day I attended Barry’s trial, I got to see not just Barry, but Al Sharpton, the Fruit of Islam, Sam Donaldson, and the RC Cola Lady--a woman who became famous in DC for dressing in head-to-toe blue spandex and walking around with a 2 liter bottle of said soda balanced on her head (sort of a proto-Kato Kaelin). When Barry was eventually found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison, it represented the end of an era. Even though Barry would eventually get elected to a fourth term as mayor four years later, he and his city would never be the same.
The documentary The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, which premieres tonight on HBO, does a nice job capturing the tenor of DC during the Barry era--the strange mixture of decadence and decrepitude, power and provincialism. But one of the film’s greatest strengths is its portrayal of Barry before he was first elected mayor in 1979. Even if you are familiar with the story of Barry’s rise--from the son of a Mississippi sharecropper to a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to a rabble-rousing activist in DC--to see that story told on film is arresting. Pictures from the ’60s and ’70s of an afroed, dashiki-clad Jesse Jackson still look like Jackson as we know him today. But the images that the filmmakers Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer found of Barry from that era--of a thin, cool, coherent young man wearing a blue worksuit as he led an army of similarly outfitted ex-cons he’d rehabilitated through his group Pride, Inc--bear almost no resemblance to the corpulent, rambling, perpetually perspiring pol he became by the ’80s. In some of the footage, it takes several moments to realize the person you’re watching is actually Barry and not some other young civil rights leader.
Unfortunately, this dichotomy contributes to the film’s greatest weakness: its narrative of a good Barry and a bad Barry, with the bad Barry not emerging until his third term as mayor. In The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, Barry is portrayed as a tragic figure who begins his mayoral tenure as an idealistic reformer but who ultimately succumbs to the temptations of power; his personal unraveling, in the film’s telling, coincides with the city’s inexorable slide into chaos. But that’s too simple a narrative. As the 1994 book Dream City by Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood (both of whom appear in Nine Lives) makes clear, Barry’s administration was rotten from the get-go. Even Barry’s early efforts to build a new black middle class in Washington--something he’s hailed for in the film--came at the expense of the city’s black underclass. As Barry’s first schools superintendent complained to him shortly before resigning: “I understand that you want to give contracts to black companies, but when you tell me to take food out of a black kid’s stomach so some black dude can get rich, I have to ask what’s your rationale?"
The documentary treats Barry’s rampant womanizing in a similar fashion. Effi Barry, who married Barry shortly before he became mayor and divorced him not long after his drug conviction, tells the charming story of the two’s first meeting and subsequent courtship and laments the philandering husband Barry became as mayor, once women--turned on by his power--began throwing themselves at him. No man, she suggests, could have resisted that sort of temptation, which included women sending nude photos of themselves to their home. But what Effi Barry, who died in 2007, and the filmmakers neglect to mention is that when Barry began courting Effi, he was married to another woman; in other words, he was always something of a cad.
None of this is to suggest that Barry was all bad. In the film, he is shown telling the congregation of a black church during one of his most embattled periods: “We are living in an imperfect world, where people expect us to be perfect.” At another point, during an interview with the filmmakers, he confesses, “Each of us has some kind of struggle in our lives. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of. I’m human.” Although the political motivations behind these little homilies are fairly transparent, that doesn’t make them untrue. And, in Barry, it’s important to realize that the bad was sometimes leavened by the good; but, more importantly, it’s crucial to realize that even the good was polluted by the bad. For his entire political career, they existed within him at the same time--which is part of what makes him such a fascinating figure. It’s just unfortunate that Flor and Oppenheimer, who seek to portray Barry as a complicated man, are ultimately unwilling to make him appear too complicated.
Of course, there’s nothing complicated about Barry as he is today. The other great strength of The Nine Lives of Marion Barry is its portrayal of his return to politics in 2004, when he ran for city council. By then, Barry, who gave Flor and Oppenheimer access to his campaign, was no longer the dashing figure of his youth or even the bloated buffoon of his middle years. Instead, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry shows its subject as a skeletal, pathetic man wrecked by diabetes and still clearly in the throes of some type of addiction. Although his campaign for city council is ultimately victorious, it doesn’t serve as a redemptive or otherwise happy ending. Earlier in Nine Lives, Chris Rock is shown lamenting the message sent by Barry’s election as mayor in 1994. “Now how do I tell little kids to not get high when the mayor’s on crack?” he asks. One look at what Barry as he is today may be the best anti-drug message ever crafted.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic.