When Eddie Murphy followed Brett Ratner in withdrawing from the Oscars, it was an open and interesting question as to where his career would go next. Would he find another prestige project in time for audiences to remember that he’s got actual chops (however much I liked Tower Heist, it’s been five years since his last truly elevating project, Dreamgirls)? Or would he drown his sorrows in fat suits and voice work? Fortunately, it looks like the former: Spike Lee’s going to direct Murphy in a Marion Barry biopic for HBO.
I’m excited for this, and not only because I live in Washington, D.C. or because (full disclosure) my coworker Harry Jaffe, who wrote a fantastic book about D.C. and Barry called Dream City, is going to be consulting on the project. I’m not a Barry fan: it’s hard to be if you’re a fan of clean and effective government, equal marriage rights, or paying your taxes. But he stands as a refutation to the idea that technocratic good government ideals will win everyone over, that voters will pick their representatives based on resumes and campaign platforms rather than on neighborhood, religious, or racial or ethnic affiliations. Barry’s continued role in the public life of the District of Columbia is inexplicable to a lot of folks, and therein lies his importance as a goad to the sense that the way folks in one quadrant of Washington see the world — or just the District — is shared by everyone around them. That’s not a particularly comfortable conversation. And Barry may not be the best of all possible representatives to communicate it. But the question is less why people keep electing Barry, and more why other alternatives don’t seem compelling or trustworthy to his constituents. And there’s no question that he’s a messy, small American icon, and deserves a movie that communicates his significance in a tough, clear-eyed way.