Spoiler Alert: The new fun fact found in the hour-plus documentary on Marion Barry Jr. is that the former chemistry student turned Mayor-for-Life believes in the power of face cream. For a few precious moments, the filmmakers show the man inside his crummy Washington View apartment stumbling around in white face, his gaunt cheeks smeared with over-the-counter moisturizer. It is the one unguarded moment the filmmakers—D.C. natives Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer—capture in the entirety of their frustrating donation to our hero’s mythology.
Flor and Oppenheimer make the mistake of framing the documentary around Barry’s successful hobble toward the Ward 8 Council seat in 2004. That race was a frictionless contest pitting Barry—or, more accurately, his name, face, and summer-jobs legend—against a slate of noncontenders, zanies, and one very weak incumbent (Sandy Allen, whom the filmmakers pretend doesn’t exist). There was no drama in that race—at least not the type of drama found in the excellent Street Fight; Barry isn’t such an out-and-out scoundrel like Newark’s Sharpe James nor was he facing down a Cory Booker type who had to learn the virtue of providing free food at campaign stops.
For the last week of the ’04 race, I was tasked with following Barry’s every move. There was nothing to capture but his decrepitude, his declining Barryness. His walk had slowed. He campaigned with his zipper down. He slept a lot. There was no war room and no outwardly shady tactics other than rigging a debate and a phony prayer service. On the big day, he spent all morning violating election law by creeping into voting sites and talking to prospective voters while they were trying to vote. Campaign workers didn’t yell at him or call security—they gave him pity hugs and coffee.
The filmmakers don’t capture so much as a frame of that. Except for the face-cream moment, Barry is filmed in the best possible light, bathed in the glow of cheering children, either looking cool or napping behind shades—can’t tell—as he’s driven around some of the poorest blocks in the District. The rest of the film is the inevitable, tired backstory.
The dirty little secret is that Barry is terrible on the subject of himself. We are left with tons of film of a man mumbling platitudes—up close, he is a bore—and no understanding of why he continues to win elections. It’s not because people see themselves—or family members—in his failings. It could be because for more than a decade he let a population go without a decent education, let crack rule, and ensured that no upstarts be groomed to replace him. Whatever the answer, the filmmakers don’t find it.
At 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 20, at AFI Silver Theatre.