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Interview with Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer

As one of our interviewees said, everyone's got a Marion Barry in their family. People can connect with that. It humanizes him, and they can relate to him.

HBO

In looking at his life and political career, 'The Nine Lives of Marion Barry' seems like a very apt title. How did you come to tell his story?

Dana Flor

I was researching another documentary and stumbled on a piece of footage of Marion Barry back in the 1960s. I was taken by it, because even though I grew up in the DC area I didn't really know anything about Marion Barry. I had heard a lot about him, but didn't know about his past. He was articulate and amazingly dynamic. And when I started talking about possibly doing a story on Marion Barry, I found that people were so emotional on both sides. They either loved him or really, really hated him. People were so impassioned by just the topic of Marion Barry that I said, oh God, this is a great story.

Toby Oppenheimer

I grew up in Maryland, right outside of DC, and my mother was very much a supporter of Marion Barry for many, many years. So I knew about him from a young age. But it wasn't until I really moved out of the city where whenever I would mention his name, everyone only knew one single thing - they knew that he had smoked crack and got busted. So, I knew there was more to tell, and that was really our intent: to show a three dimensional picture of him that not only made him more compelling, but enhanced the tragedy as well.

HBO

In his own charismatic, contradictory way, he seems like a pure product of America.

Toby Oppenheimer

Even a product specifically of DC which was one of our major intents: to tell the story of Washington DC, this black majority city that still does not have voting representation in Congress. And his story really runs parallel to that, so that was our goal, to intertwine the story of Washington DC and Marion Barry.

Dana Flor

Because the stories really are intertwined; you can't take the man out of the city, and you truly cannot take the city out of the man.

HBO

From his earliest days he was a radical. But like Martin Luther King, Jr. who he marched with, he never advocated using violence to advance a cause.

Dana Flor

The most important thing to keep in mind is that when Marion Barry comes to DC in 1965, he's a King foot soldier. He's been raised in the most amazing movement, the SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In DC at that time, there was no political movement, no local politics, and no vote. DC just got the vote for President in 1964. So, this was a completely passive city, and Marion Barry comes in and really takes DC by storm. People didn't know what to make of him.

Toby Oppenheimer

And he stepped on a lot of toes. He was radical - too radical for DC in a lot of ways. But he fought the right fight. He took on, among other issues, police brutality, which was a huge issue in DC. What he did in the sixties and seventies has a lot to do with what keeps his popularity high among his constituency today.

Why do voters keep supporting Barry? That's something we wanted to explore.

HBO

When you first contacted Barry, what was his reaction?

Dana Flor

[LAUGHS] This was a very long journey, making this film. Marion Barry really did not want to talk to me. I wrote him letters and sent emails and tried to see him over the course of about six months. He dodged me completely. It wasn't until I made friends with some of his old friends back from the SNCC days and they vouched for me that he would even speak to me.

Toby Oppenheimer

Marion Barry, understandably, is very wary of the press. He's not an easy man to deal with. He's very mercurial in his moods. He does not look to the past; he prefers to look to the future. And that's difficult when you're doing a documentary about somebody. It was only when he came home after campaigning, when he sits on his front steps, exhausted, that he finally opened up about his addiction, and you really feel this kind of introspection. But it took a long, long time to get there.

HBO

Race plays a major role in both Barry's story and the story of Washington. How did you approach the subject in the film?

Dana Flor

Race is always a factor in Washington DC. It doesn't matter who you are, it's always there, it has to do with the city's history. And the issue of race has undeniably defined Barry, as a man and as a politician. Throughout his career he has been outspoken about race - and this has resonated with a lot of people. It's a disenfranchised city, with very limited local power and no representation in Congress. This is something that Marion Barry keeps touching on throughout his career: that feeling of resentment, of impotence, and that's tied in with race too. Marion Barry didn't create it, but he played into it when it was convenient to him. And he also spoke truthfully to it.

Toby Oppenheimer

And to see him coming out of retirement in 2004 and get elected to city council in Ward 8, which is ninety-eight percent black - we really got to see it from that perspective. Why do voters keep supporting Barry? That's something we wanted to explore.

Dana Flor

Our hope is that through this film people will see something that they didn't know about Marion Barry. We want people to see that there's a reason Washingtonians vote for Marion Barry. Most people in this country don't really understand the history of the nation's capital. And it's really, really important, and has everything to do with Marion Barry's story. As one of our interviewees said, everyone's got a Marion Barry in their family. People can connect with that. It humanizes him, and they can relate to him.

The Nine Lives of Marion Barry

2009 Documentary Films Series

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