Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"My heart weeps for what Marion Barry might have been"

Last night, HBO premiered for TV a documentary on the infamous DC "Mayor for Live," Marion Barry. I didn't watch - I was well asleep by then - and that didn't bother me.

That's because I'd already seen the documentary when it was first premiered at the SilverDocs documentary film festival in Silver Spring this past June. I remember very clearly being there, among a raucous crowd of fans and haters (the only two responses that Barry seems to illicit), in a line that wrapped inside the theater and out.

There I was, at the AFI Silver Theater that night, when Barry stepped out of a limousine with an entourage of women and security. There was Barry, with that dark suit, with that awkward gait, with a woman on his arm, and always grinning. There I was as he walked that long line, smiling and shaking hands with everyone, among women who professed their love for Barry, among women who told him how happy they were for what he had done for their city, among men who told him they were proud of him for always landing on his feet.

Landing on his feet is the theme of the documentary, the Nine Lives of Marion Barry. If you're actually counting the number of 'political lives' Barry has lived, you're surely going to reach double digits. The Marion Barry I know is the sad but ever-persevering saga he has lived as a city council member for Ward 8, a saga filled with tax evasion, ethics charges, stalking accusations, cocaine usage, and a failing kidney. During city council meetings, he seems hardly lucid. That this man had an illustrious past filled with accomplishments seems but a myth. This was a man I would watch on TV, and in the newsroom, and be embarrassed for. This is the Barry I know - a joke. So when I stood on line in June, and watched his fans cry and smile and hug and thank him, I was left to wonder where the love came from.

Nine Lives was, for me, an educational experience. I saw the love, and then saw the reason why. Barry did a lot of great things for many of the citizens of the District, the primary one was his focus on finding jobs for the poor communities. He was a civil rights activist, and then a leader in standing up for the lower class, and providing a voice for those so-often ignored. This is one-half of his legacy, but does not, in fact, fully explain the reasons for the love he garners. He is able to speak to and for those communities, the black community of DC, the under-privileged of DC, because of his sins. Those unconquerable sins that still haunt Barry - drugs, alcohol, and lust - prevented Barry from becoming a legend, but because of them, he became even more a man of the people, he became one of them. He was a troubled man, but he was their man.

As pointed at by filmmaker Dana Flor during a panel discussion that followed the film, DC acts not just as some backdrop, but the struggles of the residents of DC are the subplot. It becomes clear though that during his rise, Barry was intrinsically tied and bound to the lives of the people of DC. Sometime during his peak though, he lost touch, and the filmmakers portray the cause of this disconnect to be the unconquerable sins he could not escape. It seems that if Barry had any self-control, he could have been legendary.

"My heart weeps for what Marion Barry might have been," NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood said in that panel discussion.

This troubled, always grinning man is also an opportunist to the extreme, and for that, he garners hate. Perhaps he grins because, despite himself, he gets away with everything. Perhaps he grins because he has no idea he's doing anything wrong. Neither answer provides much sympathy.

There was no hate for Barry that night in June, though. Following that panel discussion, Barry addressed the crowd that attended the film. The 73-year-old politician didn't apologize for what he had done, nor act grandiose. He simply thanked the filmmakers for being fair, thanked those who attended, and thanked those who surrounded his life.

That was the night I met Marion Barry, the night I had a drink with Marion Barry, the night I took a photo with Marion Barry, the night I went to Jackie's bar in Silver Spring and enjoyed some free food and drinks, and the night I learned much more about the city in which I lived. Last night, I went to bed and did not watch the movie about the city of DC, but I did sleep there.

This documentary was very good - though I suppose it could have been stronger. But for me, it did well in serving its purpose to educate me as to why the people of DC love this mythical man, as well as illustrating his lasting legacy on this city.

1 comment:

Scotty said...

Now that this documentary is in the can, the time is right to expand the myth and make a movie based on Chuck Norris-esque "facts" about Marion Barry.