Posted: 08/10/2009


The Nine Lives of Marion Barry - HBO documentary

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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The Nine Lives of Marion Barry is an HBO documentary that profiles the controversial Washington, D.C., politician, from his rise to political fame in D.C. in the late 1960’s until his re-election to city council in both 2004 and in 2008, after having served jail time for drug possession. Barry is an affable character, but his womanizing and eventual drug use, the last caught on video in a 1990 FBI drug sting, after he was set up by an old girlfriend, becomes his undoing.

But even after serving jail time, being embarrassed all over the nation and falling from grace with some Washingtonians, Barry still managed to win re-election. Barry’s ex-wife Effi is featured on the documentary, and she discusses his fiery, persuasive personality, as well as her place in his life. When they met, Barry said his wife gave him purpose, as he was known as being a bit rough around the edges, and she was refined and sophisticated. He swept her off her feet, and even at the end she stood firmly by his side for a while.

At what point the D.C. mayor starting indulging in drugs isn’t very clear, as a couple of times when he’s confronted about his drug use he shrugs it off and denies he’s using.
Not to be overlooked, however, Barry does much for the District of Columbia in his time in politics, which spanned more than four decades, with his first mayoral victory in 1978.

Is Barry a drug-using, lying, womanizing manipulator? Or is he the people’s folk hero, always there with a helping hand for the downtrodden and a defender of civil rights for the disenfranchised?

The Nine Lives of Marion Barry presents the total politician, for all to see and judge—from his humble roots in Mississippi, to the halls of power, where anybody who ever needed anything went to him for advice and help. And he always delivered, for the most part, until his life began to spiral downward with the trappings of success—drugs, alcohol and women.

Barry never really answers to any questions around why he did what he did. And he always seems optimistic, as if he’ll be forgiven in the end for his transgressions. And as evidenced by the title of the documentary, he is.
The Nine Lives of Marion Barry is chock-full of black political history, showing Marion as a young, goateed, dashiki-clad newcomer, whom newspapers labeled as militant during the beginning of his political career.

But not everybody loves Barry, as the documentary shows agitators and resistors during his 2004 campaign, after his jail time. They wonder just how arrogant a man can be to believe he could win re-election. But for one, last time, Barry shows them that he’s still loved in a town where people seem to still try hard to get a piece of the rock that they believe has escaped them.

Toward the end of the documentary, when Barry appears with his godson, who also aspires to become a politician, he appears beat down, walking with a cane, but still resolute in his convictions, and the audience can’t help but wonder—are there many lives left?
The Nine Lives of Marion Barry premieres Monday, August 10, on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern. It’s part of the HBO thought-provoking documentary film series presented this summer.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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