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.
More than the scorned wife relating tales of a husband’s perpetual tomcatting and substance abuse, the film focuses on the dodgy subject of racial disparity and reaction in the United States. In many ways, Barry is the ideal protagonist to display the shifting soil we find ourselves on vis a vis race relations. This isn’t Emmett Till or Medgar Evers or any of a number of unambiguous cases in the ongoing saga of injustice African-Americans have endured. Still, those wounds are fresh in the collective memory. While Americans of European descent scratch their heads over Mr. Barry’s continued success – to say nothing of the O.J. acquittal – Americans originating from Senegambia wonder why it is so difficult to comprehend. Barry is, after all, an ambitious and brilliant public servant who has succumbed to temptation. Cast the first stone. Barry was set up. Hard to argue how a person in Anacostia shouldn’t see his side of things, having endured countless privations and persecutions at the hands of the McMillans of the world and their foot soldiers within the police force and other apparatuses.
However, as The Nine Lives makes abundantly clear, Marion Barry happens to be a base pipe toking womanizer who has likely outlived his public usefulness. It is pitiful to see Barry’s name recognition and natural charisma trounce the challenge of Sandra Seegars in the 2004 city council race. Few of those beer and bull sessions include moments akin to Seegars hoping that a young man at an Apostolic church service will “make it” to twenty-five years of age. When one considers that life expectancy is nearer to thirty in even the most war-torn African nations, he sees just what kind of environment many residents of the District are dealing with. No doubt a significant portion of voters in Ward Eight still identified with whatever injustices Barry had endured. There is a moment when his godson, a young man whose understanding is clearly beyond his years, declares that he still won’t give up on him. The media is against him, the power structure is against him, white middle class sentiment is against him, but here is a man that stood up to their machinations.
With the help of people like that godson, Barry prevails in his city council comeback. Predictably, he is caught up in tax debt and within a year fails a drug test, which was part of the related court order against him. You guessed it, cocaine. Not that it stops his constituents from voting him in again in 2008. Commence head scratching, whitey.
It all makes perfect sense, in that it makes very little sense, which makes all the sense in the world. Marion Barry is precisely the politician that our baser nature demands. Sandra Seegars is the kind of person her community likely deserved. Rather than a story of redemption, the life story of Marion Barry is one that perpetuates our outmoded concepts of race and culture. It’s almost as if the bitches set us up.
The Nine Lives of Marion Barry
Directed and Produced by Dana Flor & Tony Oppenheimer
2009, Color and Black & White, 77 minutes