The generally well-reviewed broadcast Monday of HBO's Nine Lives of Marion Barry shows just how riveting real-life melodramas can be. The rise and fall of Marion Barry from civil-rights activist to crack-smoking mayor to a councilman still dogged by drug, tax and corruption charges illustrates the unique power of documentaries. They satisfy our cravings for true stories, but without the cheesy qualities that have so degraded the reality shows on TV.
And if you were lucky enough to have attended the documentary-only AFI/Discovery Silverdocs festival in Silver Spring, Maryland in June, you could have seen the film's premiere, with Marion Barry in attendance, greeted with applause by some, but hardly all, of those packed into the spacious theater's auditorium. On top of that, the festival featured an eye-popping 122 films from nearly 60 countries over the course of the week-long celebration of documentaries, drawing 25,000 attendees.
Of course the best-known footage in the former Mayor's career is in the film: Barry being busted by the feds for smoking crack and complaining, "Bitch set me up." Here's the film's trailer:
Yet, as the Daily News reviewer recapped, there was a lot more to Barry:
But as "Nine Lives" demonstrates, that was hardly the beginning of Barry's story, or the end. He served six months in jail, got out and in 1994 was elected mayor again.
Some white folks, in particular, assumed this was the people of D.C. giving an f-you gesture to The Man. This film suggests that, given Barry's history in the town, there may have been more to it.
In the 1960s, Barry was a former Eagle Scout and Ph.D. student who dropped out to join the civil rights movement.
Aggressive and confident, handsome and well-spoken, he rose rapidly. Some who knew him say he could have been a successor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national leader.
He chose to go local, though, campaigning for empowerment of the residents of Washington, a city that was 70% black but run entirely by Congress, often the white Southerners in Congress.
After the city won at least partial sovereignty, Barry was elected mayor on a platform of reform.
It's not clear when drugs kicked in for him, since he didn't admit until years later that they did. But "Nine Lives" is not alone in suggesting a drug addict may not have been the best mayor for a city with devastating drug problems. When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they also took back control of Washington.
And Barry's story rolled on.
A decade later, in frailer health and now a veteran of several drug relapses, Barry was elected to the City Council. In 2008, he was reelected.
The picture of Barry from those who knew him is no less complex. His late ex-wife, Effi, who finally left him when he went to jail, says she doesn't know the man in the hotel sting video.
Some say he's a hustler who played the system. Others, including Barry himself, say he's a victim of the disease of drugs.
A few local journalists thought the film wasn't tough enough on Barry. But as someone who lived in D.C. during much of the turmoil of his terms in office (he was nicknamed Mayor-for-Life), I agree with reviewers who feel the film offers a relatively unvarnished look at his career, although it downplayed the ongoing poverty of the inner-city residents he claimed to represent.
The film has an epilogue noting that after the 2004 reelection campaign that's featured in the film, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion and tested positive for cocaine while on probation.
But the film was completed before even newer allegations were revealed in July involving alleged corruption in contracts and the gritty details of a tawdry obsession leading to an arrest for a stalking accusationlodged by an ex-girlfriend; Barry was arrested, but the charges were later dropped.
With so much real-life melodrama, who needs stilted reality TV shows?
And why should we make do with the emotional rants of Tyra Banks on America's Next Model or the machinations of Donald Trump when we can follow the mood swings, tangled romantic life and alleged misbehavior of Marion Barry?
In that spirit, for almost every type of reality television show, there's an artful, more thoughtful documentary that's coming to a theater near you -- or is already new on DVD or in theaters. Many of the best have been shown, or premiered, at Silverdocs.
So for would-be fans of American Idol who don't think much of the music or personalities on the show, there's Afghan Star, which takes a touching look at a country emerging from Taliban repression absorbed in a televised national singing contest, And unlike the minor controversy over whether runner-up Adam Lampert lost fairly this year, it's really a matter of life-and-death for one young woman Afghan contestant who faces death threats after dancing a bit to the music and performing without a head scarf.
This year, the breakup of the marriage of Jon and Kate , stars of Jon & Kate Plus Eight, has been one of the biggest tabloid stories after the death of Michael Jackson. America's fascination with dysfunctional and oddball families also made The Osbournes a huge hit.
But these stories all pale next to the convoluted woes and disputes plaguing the working-class Mosher family, as chronicled by co-directors Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri, in the film festival's grand prize U.S. feature, October Country. It's moody, amusing, stunningly filmed and riveting. As the Silvedocs guide aptly described it (with video trailer included):
OCTOBER COUNTRY is a haunting multi-generational story of a working-class family coping with poverty, teen pregnancy, foster care and the ineffable horrors of child molestation and war. A co-directing effort by filmmaker Michael Palmieri and photographer and writer Donal Mosher, it follows Donal's family in Herkimer, New York from one Halloween to the next, resulting in a beautifully crafted ﬁlm remarkable for its intimacy, sensitivity and textured portrait of a family in crisis that has become all too familiar, if not representative, of America's poor.
And for fans of behind-the-scenes show business reality shows, from Project Greenlight to Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, there's never been any such show on TV to match the story told in The Best Worst Movie of the remarkable second life given to a cult horror film, Troll 2. That film makes Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space look like Citizen Kane, and the story of these amateurish actors coping with the film's original obscurity and their new-found fame as "camp" idols is both touching and hilarious.
The film's most remarkable find is the upbeat Southern dentist and beloved local altruist, Dr. George Hardy, who starred as a featured player in the film, and is now relishing all the attention at midnight movie showings as a cult icon. As the website for the film, made by a former child actor in the movie, summarizes its appeal:
Best Worst Movie is the acclaimed feature length documentary that takes us on an off-beat journey into the undisputed worst movie in cinematic history: Troll 2.
In 1989, when an Italian filmmaker and unwitting Utah actors shot the ultra-low budget horror film, Troll 2, they had no idea that twenty years later they would be celebrated worldwide for their legendary ineptitude.
Two decades later, the film's now-grown-up child star (Michael Paul Stephenson) unravels the improbable, heartfelt story of the Alabama dentist-turned-cult movie icon and the Italian filmmaker who come to terms with this genuine, internationally revered cinematic failure.
Is Troll 2 really the worst movie ever made as claimed by IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes? Or is Troll 2, as some would claim, a misunderstood masterpiece that never fails to entertain... a work of genius? Twenty years after Troll 2 was made, the feature length documentary BEST WORST MOVIE explores the Troll 2 phenomenon through the personal story of the cast of characters that took part in its creation and why it is celebrated by fans worldwide.
And that's what makes a film festival like Silverdocs so unique: real larger-than-life characters, from the disgraced but still determined former Mayor Marion Barry to his polar opposite, the selfless, amiable small-town dentist, Dr. Hardy, both made appearances at the festival to help promote their films. And, when they're on screen, like movie stars in fictional features, you can't help but be fascinated by them: