By Bryan Newbury
August 7, 2009
Bitch set me up.
Chances are, when someone outside of Washington, D.C. mentions the name Marion Barry, those four words will enter into the conversation. Like all things dealing with race in the United States, the jovial treads a very thin line before falling off of the precipice into the hateful. In the Middle West, we have a longstanding tradition of jovial skewing towards hateful. Hopefully, these little jabs come off for entertainment over beers. To claim that there is never a bit of racially charged humor in those bull sessions would be duplicitous. At the risk of breaking a little news, these conversations still happen in our new postracial America.
The unwelcome news in postracial Obaman America, of course, is that the jovial is rapidly ceding territory to the hateful. For some reason, farmer-tanned minions throughout our land seem unwilling to share in the collective joy we right-thinking individuals relish in regarding our first African-American president, our first Latina Supreme Court justice and a new release by Eminem. “White America,” whatever that might mean, is astonishingly adept at adopting a mentality of victimhood, and it appears that the lightly satiric Midwestern quips are increasingly becoming drowned out by verbiage more reminiscent of the Old South. Midwesterners tell funny stories, they say. Southerners tell stories funny. There is a world of difference.
When one throws something like The Nine Lives of Marion Barry into this confusing milieu, the results will be decidedly mixed.
Outside of the District, and especially outside of the black community, the consensus is that Mr. Barry is a base pipe toking womanizer who has outlived his public usefulness. Inside of the District and its black community, the former is a forty-sixty proposition. The sixty readily identify with Mr. Barry’s trials and tribulations, having experienced the siege of narcotics and violence in their community, having lived through broken homes bought about in many respects by the willful efforts of the Anglo power structure to break those homes and communities. As the film points out early on, the District operated as an odd plantation protectorate well into the 1970’s, being administered by gents like John McMillan of South Carolina . Barry was indispensable in the fight to “Free D.C.” and make it possible for citizens of the overwhelmingly black city to enjoy basic rights other Americans take for granted, such as electing a city council and mayor.*
The Nine Lives of Marion Barry follows the rise and fall and resurrection and fall and rise and stumbling and rising again of Barry alongside that of his city, weaving in and out from historical context to his 2004 run for city council from Ward Eight, a notoriously hard-hit area of our nation’s capital. There is little hint of hagiography here. Effi Slaughter, Barry’s ex-wife, gets the lion’s share of interview time. It is easy to relate to her. Probably as easy as District residents find it to relate to their former mayor. She gives a cogent reckoning of her relationship with Mr. Barry, from his charismatic rise in D.C. activism and politics to his 1990 arrest and beyond. Read the rest of this entry »