Television Review

Marion Barry’s remarkable story

An HBO documentary chronicles the tumultuous career of Marion Barry, a ’60s civil-rights leader-turned-Washington politician. An HBO documentary chronicles the tumultuous career of Marion Barry, a ’60s civil-rights leader-turned-Washington politician. (Washington Post)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / August 10, 2009

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No screenwriter would dare dream up the rise and fall of Marion Barry.

Barry surfaced in the ’60s as one of the most potent and charismatic leaders in the civil-rights movement. Then in the ’80s, he served three consecutive terms as mayor of Washington, D.C. In 1990, he was arrested for smoking crack with a woman in a hotel room and served six months in federal prison. After his release in 1992, he was promptly elected to the D.C. Council. In 1994, he was reelected mayor by a landslide. Now 73, he has been representing Ward 8, the overwhelmingly black area of the city that is also its poorest since 2004. Barry was charged in 2005 for failing to file and pay income taxes, and was arrested last month for stalking an ex-girlfriend. He is an alcoholic and drug addict. He has survived cancer and blown through four marriages.

You can’t make this up.

Which is why “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry’’ is such addictive viewing. It’s as much about his personal life as his professional one.

Director/producers Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer give us a superb look at the multiple lives of Barry that airs at 9 tonight on HBO. The pacing is brisk and the filmmakers gained access to his 2004 campaign for the D.C. Council. A camera follows him, then in declining health, as he seeks votes. We see the adamantine loyalty of black constituents against the broader disgust of most of the city.

Most people familiar with him recall a fallen man, an embarrassment to the city, out of control from booze, drugs, and women. Few outside of Washington remember his rise before his fall (and then rise again). Flor and Oppenheimer correct the picture and remind us how good Barry was before he went bad.

He ran as a reformer. White liberals liked him and The Washington Post endorsed him for mayor three times. He was the anti-establishment character who won over the establishment he opposed.

Born poor in Mississippi, he was close to getting a doctorate in chemistry before he abandoned that pursuit for the civil-rights movement. His arrival was loud. He was tall, handsome, and arrogant, and he felt untouchable. The Rev. Jesse Jackson approvingly called him “a militant rebel rouser.’’

He stormed into power riding great expectations from voters and performed well until his personal life crashed and his administration went corrupt. He gave a sense of pride to the black community and brought energy and, initially, competence to a city government known for its inertia and subservience to Congress, which ran it like a plantation until the city finally gained home rule in 1973.

Barry went straight at the city’s high infant mortality rate. He trimmed the bloated budget. He built housing. But rumors of cocaine and women began floating around him long before he went to prison. What he did was self-destruct before our eyes.

The story of Marion Barry is mesmerizing. You wonder if he has any more lives left.

Sam Allis can be reached at


Time: tonight, 9-10:30

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