Voices: Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Roger and Chaz Ebert. Image via Chicago Sun-Times.

How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading. If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude. I was very sick. I might have vegetated in hopelessness. This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.

Does that sound too dramatic? You were not there. She was there every day, visiting me in the hospital whether I knew it or not, becoming an expert on my problems and medications, researching possibilities, asking questions, making calls, even giving little Christmas and Valentine’s Day baskets to my nurses, who she knew by name.
–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, July 17, 2012.

He fought a courageous fight. I’ve lost the love of my life and the world has lost a visionary and a creative and generous spirit who touched so many people all over the world,” she said. “We had a lovely, lovely life together, more beautiful and epic than a movie. It had its highs and the lows, but was always experienced with good humor, grace and a deep abiding love for each other.
–Chaz Ebert, quoted in People Magazine, April 4, 2013.

Spike Lee‘s “Do the Right Thing” is the most controversial film of the year, and it only opens today. Thousands of people already have seen it at preview screenings, and everywhere I go, people are discussing it. Some of them are bothered by it; they think it will cause trouble. Others feel the message is confused. Some find it too militant, others find it the work of a middle-class director who is trying to play street-smart. All of those reactions, I think, simply are different ways of avoiding the central fact of this film, which is that it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.

Of course it is confused. Of course it wavers between middle-class values and street values. Of course it is not sure whether it believes in liberal pieties or militancy. Of course some of the characters are sympathetic and others are hateful. And of course some of the likable characters do bad things. Isn’t that the way it is in America today? Anyone who walks into this film expecting answers is a dreamer or a fool. But anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn’t paying attention.
–Roger Ebert, June 30, 1989

It is that simple, humanistic take that helped Ebert to champion black filmmakers throughout his career. (Even Bamboozled, a film that failed to impress the critic, merited a thoughtful response, a consideration of black filmmakers and performers more generally.) Just take a look at some of the films that have topped his lists as the best in a number of years: The Color Purple (directed by Steven Spielberg, of course, but based on the novel by Alice Walker and featuring a mostly black cast), Do the Right ThingMalcolm XHoop Dreams (also made by a white director but focused on the lives of two young black men and their families), Eve’s Bayou. Whether or not you agree with each of those choices—Ebert himself went back and acknowledged the flaws in The Color Purple, though he still maintained Whoopi Goldberg as Celie was “perfect”—there aren’t that many white critics who considered all those films even for their top 10 lists, much less for number one spots. There still exists an often unconscious ghettoizing of movies by black filmmakers as simply “black films,” not among the truly “great” ones.

Ebert’s vocal support and sympathy for minority filmmakers went beyond the black community. At an infamous Sundance Q&A that followed a screening of Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, a white man in the audience asked the film’s Asian-American creators how they could portray their culture in such an “irresponsible” light. Ebert got up after him and, nearly shouting, pointed out that no one would ask such a question of white filmmakers, and that no one should ask it of minority filmmakers, either.

–Aisha Harris, Slate

He was proudly local, his byline gracing The Chicago Sun-Times, his caricature decorating the wall of half the restaurants in the Loop, his aisle seat reserved at the Lake Street screening room. All this even after he became the universal embodiment and global ambassador of his profession, at home in Cannes and Hollywood and, most recently, on Twitter.

Twitter was the last, and maybe the least, of the discursive forms Mr. Ebert mastered. A journalist for nearly half a century, a television star for three decades, a tireless blogger and the author of a memoir and a cookbook, he was platform agnostic long before that unfortunate bit of jargon was invented. Social media, another neologism and, too often, an oxymoron, was for him a tautology.

Every medium he made use of was, above all, a tool of communication, a way of talking to people — Sun-Times readers, the critic in the other chair, Facebook friends, insomniacs and enthusiasts — about the movies he cared about and, perhaps more important, the human emotions and aspirations those movies represented.
–A.O. Scott, New York Times

I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
–Roger Ebert, book excerpt posted in Salon, 2011.

Thank you. Forty-six years ago on April 3, 1967, I became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of you have read my reviews and columns and even written to me since that time. Others were introduced to my film criticism through the television show, my books, the website, the film festival, or the Ebert Club and newsletter. However you came to know me, I’m glad you did and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for.
–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, April 2, 2013