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.
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.
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.
When you first contacted Barry, what was his reaction?
[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.
Race plays a major role in both Barry's story and the story of Washington. How did you approach the subject in the film?
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.