After eight years of living in Detroit and 20 in Baltimore, I thought I knew quite a bit about local politics in predominantly African-American communities.

After seeing HBO's "The Nine Lives of Marion Barry," a no-holds-barred yet deeply touching look at the career of the former mayor of Washington, I now appreciate how little I knew about this man and what he stands for to many of the residents he still represents as a city councilman at age 73.

Don't get me wrong. The powerful film by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer seems to cut Barry no slack. If it's not warts and all, it is certainly warts and lots of other bad stuff.

But the documentary also manages to make you see him as a human being rather than only the profane, night-vision green figure viewed by millions in an FBI "sting" video of him smoking crack cocaine in the hotel room of a woman who wasn't his wife.

Oh, that video is in the film all right. And not only is it there, but Flor and Oppenheimer also have Barry's ex-wife, Effi, on-screen talking about what she felt as she watched the video that included her husband pathetically trying to grope the woman who invited him up to her room.

Getting Effi Barry, who died in 2007 at 63, to be so involved in this production is one of the central ways that the producers manage to make Marion Barry come to life as a human being. We see the young Marion Barry through her eyes, and her words communicate a stirring sense of what a promising young politician and civil rights leader he was, once upon a time. The film is steeped in that kind of melancholy and sadness for what might have been - not just for Barry, but for the urban America many of us hoped would emerge from the riots of the 1960s and the best intentions of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

"Nine Lives" is structured masterfully. Oppenheimer and Flor open with a soundtrack of off-screen voices that articulate the contradiction that is Barry.

"He's a hero," one voice says.

"He's a thug," says another.

"Roast his [expletive]. That's what I say: Roast him," says a third.

And on it goes with approving, condemning, angry, thoughtful and coarse voices offering their assessments of the man.

And then, the film proper starts in 2004 with Barry, 68, suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure, running for office as the councilman from Ward 8, the district's poorest section, with a population that is 98 percent African-American.

This segment begins with a campaign worker banging on Barry's apartment door trying to wake him. As a blues guitar plays a string of slow and lonely notes, the camera moves behind the apartment door to catalog the messy and haphazard innards of the room of an old man living alone.

When the camera finally finds Barry, he is just out of bed, his face covered in what looks like a white mud pack gone Kabuki mask.

"I've got to have the smoothest face in town," he says by way of explaining the cream on his face.

Soon, he's out the door wearing a jaunty-looking planter's hat, riding in a van and hitting the streets of Ward 8 looking for votes - and love from the voters.

That's when Oppenheimer and Flor start in on the back story - the one I didn't know.

It's Washington, 1965, and the district, which is 70 percent African-American, has no mayor and no city council. Congress runs the city, and a white congressman from South Carolina is in charge.

"The city was like a plantation," says Elona Evans-McNeill, a Barry campaign staffer. "We didn't have elections. ... We couldn't vote."

Enter Marion Barry - young, lean, proud and tall - hellbent on change.

"If I'm going to get beat to death, I might as well get something for it," he says on newsreel footage from the time. And you can just feel how much he must have rattled the white, predominantly Southern status quo of the times.

Oh, Lord, all the good he might have done. But that's the Marion Barry some in the district still remember today - the man who fought to get them a city council, a mayor and the right to vote.

While cutting back and forth to the 2004 campaign in Ward 8, the film goes on to chronicle his administrations - the accomplishments at first, and then the charges of cronyism and corruption at the end. And despite the dazzle of him and Effi as the city's First Couple, before long come the other women and the drugs.

The drug story is an especially distressing narrative, made all the more poignant by interviews with an adolescent godson of Barry's who clearly adores the older man. But the boy also has a difficult time processing what his godfather tells him vs. the reality he discovers in 2008. (The film was finished and set for release before Barry was charged with stalking an ex-girlfriend in July. The charges were dropped.)

To say more about the final act of the film would be to spoil the exquisitely crafted rise and fall, fall and rise and fall of this winning documentary.

OK, one last thing. The music is superb. In fact, I have not heard and seen music used this expertly in a documentary since Ken Burns' "Civil War." I know what high praise that is, and I mean it.

Near the end of the film, comes a nighttime moment with the aged Barry in his campaign van on election night, softly singing the refrain of the gospel song, "Victory Is Mine."

The image, the voice and the man are still rolling around in my head. I think that's what they mean by resonance - and maybe irony, too.


"The Nine Lives of Marion Barry" premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO, with multiple replays through the month.

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