At a podium in a packed HBO screening room in midtown, Marion Barry is singing: “Victory is mine / Victory is mine / Victory today is mine / I done told Satan, get thee behind / Victory today is mine.” Had this been Barry’s 2004 campaign for D.C.’s City Council, which he won with 94 percent of the vote, this might have been an appropriate reaction. But we’ve just watched The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, a documentary about his rise and (very long) fall and (slight) redemption that’s airing on HBO tonight. It’s hardly the kind of story that would make the subject stand up and crow about winning. Then again, we are talking about Marion Barry. And Barry seems to have decided that if he can’t be mayor of D.C. anymore, he might as well be mayor of tonight.
Before the movie — which shows Barry from his activist days in the SNCC to the mayor’s office, jail, mayor’s office again, and City Council — Barry sat by the window, appetizer plate piled high. “Where are we sitting?” he asked his spokesperson, Natalie Williams (who says the only time she actually speaks for Barry is when his lawyers demand it). “We’ve got a nice row of couches in the back,” she said. “The back?” said Barry. “Why do I want to sit in the back? I’ve been in the back all my life. Back of the bus, back of the line, back of the swimming pool.” Williams explained that the seats were actually very nice armchairs — better than movie seats. Barry rolled his eyes, but seemed pleased when he discovered it was easier for the audience to see him wave from the back row during introductions.
“It wasn’t always easy, but thank you, Marion,” said Dana Flor, who directed and produced the film with Toby Oppenheimer. She’d sent Barry letters and e-mails for six months with no response before making her pitch while he was dining alone, she later explained. “Out of every ten meetings with Marion Barry, he stood me up seven,” said Flor. “Or he’d shut down. He’d say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you right now,’ or ‘You can’t film this,’ or he’d get mad about something. He fights introspection. It was a painful process trying to make him look back.” Barry’s only true moment of introspection, it seems, came while watching the finished film’s honest, sometimes scathing, interviews with his ex-wife Effi, who died from leukemia a year and a half ago. “I didn’t know she was cut that deeply, because even when she separated, she said it would only be for four or five months,” he told us, the volume of his voice dropping considerably. (After singing his victory song, Barry told the crowd that, before she got cancer, he and Effi had been talking about getting married again.)
So then, why did Barry participate? “Well, most of the media have portrayed me as this cocaine-smoking, not-too-bright, corrupt politician,” he told us. “This movie gives me an opportunity to have people see a portion of my 50 years of service. What I’ve done for Washington is just fantastic — beyond description — how I have made it the way it is. Look at my service, and in my service you will come to love me.”
To hear Barry talk is to wonder if his well-documented drug use and philandering were merely an elaborate fiction. “Did I smoke crack? When? Where?” he asked us. He maintains that if you watch the 1990 FBI tape in which he puts crack pipe to lip in the Vista Hotel, you’ll see that he didn’t know how to use it. “I didn’t even know if it WAS crack,” he says. He also insists that the FBI was trying to kill him “with whatever substance was in that pipe,” but that’s another story.
Clean since 1990 — with a brief relapse in 2006 — Barry looks forward. He wants to do some shopping while he’s in New York, never mind those recent tax-evasion charges. “I may go down to the Village and buy some things, since I have some money. [Uncle] Sam takes a lot of it, but I have some, girl.” He greets his public, shaking hands, giving hugs, taking photographs. A crying woman says she became a film producer because of a job program Barry started. An elevator full of admirers screams out “MB!” just as the doors close. It’s one more day of publicizing this movie and then back to Washington to do the good work of a popular black politician in a majority black city working for the first time with a black president. “I haven’t asked the president for anything. I don’t need anything, personally,” Barry says, still shaking hands. “The people, they need help — highest unemployment rate, highest dropout rate. Marion Barry doesn’t need anything but some peace from media people. That’s all I need.”