Baltimore City Paper

Clicking and Streaming: 'The Nine Lives of Marion Barry' and 'Happy,' two knotty documentaries

"The Nine Lives of Marion Barry"

Directed by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer


Streaming via Hulu

To many, Marion Barry, the recently deceased longtime mayor of Washington, D.C., is misunderstood—a formative D.C. political figure whose real legislative achievements have been downplayed due to a few dalliances with hard drinks, women, and the crack cocaine he was caught using. To others, he's an arrogant career politician, one whose crass opportunism and embarrassingly rampant hedonism have been forgiven solely due to his winking charisma.


The 2008 documentary, "The Nine Lives of Marion Barry," directed by longtime D.C. residents Dana Flor and Toby Oppenhemer and now streaming on Hulu, doesn't seek to reconcile these conflicting narratives of Barry's time in office. Instead, it documents the intertwining relationship between Barry and the people of D.C. and uses a wealth of archival footage to depict Barry's arrival in 1965, his rise to political power, being elected mayor three times until his fall from grace following a 1990 FBI sting operation that caught him red-handed using crack cocaine with a mistress, and his stunning reelection as mayor after a two-year narcotics imprisonment in 1994. Throughout, the film displays how Barry's figure was essential to Washington attaining a degree of self-representation, emerging out of the Congressional "plantation-style rule" that governed the city to that point.

Barry's rise, fall, and rise is intercut with yet another one of his comebacks, as the doc follows his successful 2005 run for city council representative of the impoverished Ward 8. As we see Barry's long stay in the public eye, it's hard not to get swept up in the cocked eyebrow and half-smile of his cool confidence, even when it's used in the service of what we know to be lies. It's similarly hard for these lies not to revolt the viewer at times, particularly when we see their effects on the people around him. Through interviews, the audience sees how Barry's infidelity beleaguers his radiant then-wife, and, after he tests positive again for cocaine in 2008, how crushing a disappointment it is to the plucky godson that idolizes him.

These kinds of contradictions are integral to Barry's character and are smartly shown by Oppenheimer and Flor through a rich array of perspectives, from those in his inner circle to the (largely white) political advisors that spurn Barry following his descent into drug and alcohol addiction. Perhaps the most trenchant example of his power over the district comes through the testimonials of working-class black civilians supporting his final campaign. Many speak of Barry with glowing faces, some recounting how his PRIDE jobs program gave them their first opportunity to enter the workforce, and a few attest to registering to vote simply to vote Barry back in. As the death of what Washington City Paper called D.C.'s "mayor for life" allows us a chance to re-examine his time in office, "The Nine Lives of Marion Barry" shines as a visual document of the complex relationship between the District of Columbia and the charismatic, inextricably flawed figure that shaped much of its modern political landscape. (Theo Salem-Mackall)


Directed by Roko Belic

Now streaming via Netflix

The new year is upon us and everyone's spewing the same resolutions they do every year: lose weight, stop smoking, save money. And good for everyone trying to do better with their life, but I'd recommend watching "Happy" by Roko Belic. This 2011 documentary, which explores all corners of the world in an effort to find out what really makes people happy and how achieving happiness impacts other areas of their lives, might change your perspective on this year's resolutions.

Although its conclusion is rather predictable (happiness comes from within, not from wealth or material things), the documentary's path toward that answer is compelling as it presents the information about happiness from both a scientific perspective and an intimate, human-interest level, so the film simultaneously educates and inspires the viewer.


Many people search for happiness in financial and corporate success, but a study of Japan, the least-happy country of wealthy and industrialized nations, proves that when money and success are all you're after, happiness will evade your grasp. Meanwhile, there are really basic tips to finding joy such as maintaining your physical health, connecting with nature, and helping other people, but the film delves much deeper into more intriguing aspects of the emotion, like how much of it we can control. It also explores how different people from around the world are or aren't happy based on their lifestyles and what they can do to change. What's very clear from the trip around the world is that for the most part, America and most of the other first world countries are doing happiness all wrong, which is actually rather depressing to watch. The importance we put on appearance, money, and ourselves rather than others is what's dragging us down. The film explains that the very things we think will make us happy are actually having the opposite effect, and I believe it.

Thankfully, the documentary teaches ways to escape that kind of thinking and transform our lives into more positive and happy ones: partake in more physical activity to increase endorphin production and "flow," spend more time with nature, help others to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and spend more time with people who bring positivity to your life. Now, those are some New Year's resolutions I can get behind. (Ashley Stephenson)