The Confusing Lives of Marion Barry

Why a new HBO documentary brings us no closer to figuring out Chocolate City's infamous mayor.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

But Marion Barry, as made clear in a new HBO documentary airing today, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, knows how to get involved in a scandal, do a little time for said scandal, rebound with a major reelection bid, get arrested for drunken driving, get married four times while engaging in philandering of epic proportions, do a little time in rehab, survive cancer, get arrested on charges of tax evasion, get reelected for city council, and then, this summer, get arrested for, of all things, stalking an ex-girlfriend.

So Barry is indeed iconic, iconic in that a so-outrageous-that-Chris Rock-felt-compelled-to-craft-a-standup-monologue-about-him kind of way. Among city politicians, it’s hard to find a more polarizing figure: Many loathe him, yes, but there are those who love him with a fierceness. As the promo line for the documentary reads, “To Know Him Is to Love, Hate, Praise, Scorn, Admire, Vilify Him.”

Traditionally, there have always been three Washingtons:  The mainly white  Northwest D.C. that controlled the purse strings and the power; the bourgie Gold Coast D.C. of the so-called mulatto elite; and the disenfranchised regular black folks who made up the bulk of the city. In the past decade or so, D.C. has morphed into other incarnations as well: Ethiopian D.C., Salvadoran D.C., South Asian D.C., West African D.C. and, most recently, boutique city D.C., with the $3,000-a-month rents, Barneys Co-op and sustainable seafood restaurants. Those are not Barry’s people. Barry’s people are to be found a scant two miles from the White House; they know him as a man of the people, a mayor who helped bolster the ranks of D.C.’s black middle class, a man who likes to take the credit for creating “a lot of black millionaires.”

“For those people who are Barry haters, this movie puts it into perspective,” Barry says in the documentary, which is directed by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer. “Washington isn’t nearly the same it was. … I made a lot of black people fairly rich, including Bob Johnson.”

To understand the Barry love, it helps to remember that Barry came to power at a time when cities were in decline, but when black city politicians were in the ascendancy: Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson, Detroit’s Coleman Young, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes, Gary’s Richard Hatcher. Parliament Funkadelic’s “Chocolate City” encapsulated that sense of hope and dominion: