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HBO's Nine Lives of Marion Barry hits his many high points

Marion Barry and third wife, Effi, who died in 2007. HBO photo

Mark Sanford, Larry Craig, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer and numerous other disgraced politicians should all be "inspired" by the modern-day Babe Ruth of the genre.

That would be Marion Barry, the philandering, cocaine-addicted D.C. officeholder who was elected mayor before and after his imprisonment. He then retired, regrouped and stunningly triumphed anew.

HBO's The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, premiering Monday, Aug. 10th at 8 p.m. (central), is a revealing, 78-minute look into his life, times and crimes.

It's about an activist who fostered black pride and an opportunist who seemed to blow it all through his nose and otherwise. But Barry never really fell out of favor in a community that itself kept sideswiping the straight and narrow.

D.C. and later the city's dirt poor Ward 8 did nothing to actually "deserve" Marion Barry. But a good number of his African-American constituents continued to understand where he was coming from and where they'd been. His struggles alienated many of his supporters, embarrassed "official" Washington and made him a punchboard for standup comics, including Chris Rock. But through it all, Barry has yet to take a definitive knockout punch. He still hasn't been beaten in any of his races for political office.

Nine Lives, the first feature-length collaboration by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, begins with Barry's comeback 2004 run for a City Council seat against Sandra Seegars. He's initially seen in what amounts to white-face, a "5-Minute Mud" coating that has given him "the smoothest face in town." He was 68 at the time.

The film soon winds back to 1965, with Barry a firebrand activist who believes in both non-violence and self-detemination.

"If I'm gonna be beat to death, I might as well get somethin' for it," he says.

Elected to the city council, Barry quickly had the temerity to run for mayor against a more experienced group of African-American candidates. His new wife, Effi, recalls feeling like "Alice in Wonderland" during an interview filmed before her death in 2007. But her husband eventually succumbed to the many temptations afforded him. Or as Effi put it, "Marion is a man, and power is a very seductive mistress."

Despite escalating rumors of affairs and drug use, Barry kept winning re-election. In telling 1985 footage from a church, he tells a worshipful congregation, "We are living in an imperfect world where people expect us to be perfect."

A 1990 sting operation, in which Barry was set up by an ex-girlfriend, yielded blurry black-and-white video of the mayor snorting coke and repeatedly coming on to Rasheeda Moore, who testified against him. It got him a six-month prison term and a seeming death sentence regarding his future in politics. Instead he was re-elected mayor in 1994.

Nine Lives in some ways rehabilitates Barry, or at least coaxes viewers to see him through a different prism. He at times is almost poignant while in the midst of his 2004 campaign, conceding past sins to the film's interviewer while at the same time retaining that old arrogance.

"I'm more vigorous than ever before," he says when clearly he's not. And of his opponent, Barry says, "She's desperate, and she's a liar."

He has a new acolyte in a teenager who rides with him to campaign stops and pledges allegiance at every turn.

"He's tired. Well, he deserves some rest," the boy tells the camera. "He's a hard-working man."

Effi left him shortly after the infamous drug bust trial.

"Again I felt like Alice in Wonderland. But it was a different Alice," she says.

Barry, now 73, is still representing.

"If you look down, you go down," he says. "So I look forward and look up. It's as simple as that."

Last fall he won reelection to the City Council by a landslide. Scandalous? Marion Barry doesn't see it that way. Never has.