More than a mere punch line


Marion Barry: Washington, D.C. councilman, mayor, womanizer, drug abuser, convict, punch line, councilman, mayor, councilman. Viewed from a safe distance, his extravagant misadventures have been good for a laugh or two over the years, the odd bemused shake of the head.

Nowadays, of course, scandal-beset politicians can seem as common as crows. But what sets Barry apart is that however crazy his private life has become, he has been continually returned to office. Now 73, he's in his second term representing D.C.'s disadvantaged Eighth Ward on the city council.

Although many in his own corner of the world also consider him a kind of running joke, that there is more to the man than I previously bothered to imagine is made clear, if not crystal clear, in Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer's documentary "The Nine Lives of Marion Barry." Premiering tonight on HBO, the film jumps back and forth from Barry's 2004 comeback campaign for council to earlier stations of his public life. The first chairman of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he came to D.C. as an activist and organizer in the mid-1960s when the city was still run by Congress as (as one commentator describes it) "a plantation" in whose governing its largely African American population had no say. When Barry was first elected mayor, in 1978, he was only the second person ever to hold that office. (Later, he was also the fourth.)

Remembered here by Jesse Jackson as a "marching, picketing, freedom-riding, risk-taking young man," Barry said he grew up "dirt, dirt, dirt poor" in Mississippi and Tennessee and was studying for a doctorate in chemistry when he turned to politics. Seen in old footage, he is tall and good-looking and full of energy, approaching the world, in the words of journalist Tom Sherwood, "like a teenager perpetually on a date." He was effective for a time, but by his third term as mayor, he'd begun to go off the rails with drink, drugs and women not his wife. And where he once was jailed in pursuit of social justice, in 1990 he was arrested for possession of crack cocaine and spent six months in federal prison, becoming a national joke.

Chris Rock: "How you can you tell little kids not to get high when the mayor's on crack? 'Don't get high -- you won't be nothin'.' 'I could be mayor.' "

The 2004 Barry is naturally less energetic -- he is questioned about his health -- though still tall and rakish; we meet him mud-packing his face and coloring his hair. As before, he generates strong reactions, against and for. ("He's still a rebel," says one young man. "We need his help. He's comin' back, round two.") Barry won that election and was reelected last November despite problems with unpaid taxes, recurrent cocaine use, and an ex-girlfriend who accused him of stalking her. (He is being investigated over work he threw her way.)

If his appeal is not well explained, it may be that it is beyond explanation, a kind of magic, or that, as the filmmaker's suggest, it is so simple: People like him because his troubles look like theirs. For all his screen time, you will not get to the bottom of him here; the few words he has to say of his travails boil down to something no more revealing, and no less true, than "Life is hard." That does not make the subject any less fascinating.



'The Nine Lives of Marion Barry'

Where: HBO

When: 9 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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