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