Last night a celebration of the life and career of film critic and writer Roger Ebert took place at the Chicago Theater, downtown Chicago, and, needless to say, it wasn’t a sober affair. It was instead one of humor, love and tribute to a man who loved movies, his wife Chaz and the joy of life itself.
Not surprisingly, there were many celebrities and filmmakers who spoke tributes and fond recollections, or who were in the audience, such as Chris Tucker, Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead) directors Andrew Davis, Gregory Nava, Darryl Roberts and Steve James (whose current project is a documentary on Eberrt), Tom Luddy, founder and director of the Telluride Film Festival, Michael Barker, president of Sony Pictures Classics, producer Steve Jones, and also John and Joan Cusack who read a letter of tribute and appreciation from President Obama and Michelle Obama.
But there was a lot of laughter, as well a speech from former TV partner, film critic and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roper, who told a story about a post-Oscar awards dinner he had with Roger and Michael Moore, during which a heated argument about politics occurred with Moore saying, in amazement to Roger, “Holy Shit! You’re more liberal than I am!”
Comedian/activist Dick Gregory, who had the audience rolling and who told a completely wacky story about Ebert (long before he met and married Chaz it must be noted), and the Old Town Ale House owner and writer Bruce Elliott, when Roger came into his bar with a couple of women with “large breasts” (a point Elliott emphasized repeatedly) and which wound up with them literally throwing drinks at each other. The story had neither a point nor a punch line, but it was funny just the same.
However two filmmakers who gave their own personal tributes during the celebration last night were filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Julie Dash.
DuVernay was exceptionally moving as she recounted the times Roger entered her life, starting when she was just 8 years old, wearing her pink overalls, while attending a rehearsal for the Oscars show with her aunt, and meeting both Ebert and Gene Siskel, while they were they covering the event, and had her picture taken with him. (See photo on the left)
She continued her association with Roger while she went on to work as a film publicist in her PR firm, and never failed to get his unwavering support to review and bring attention to smaller independent films that needed to be brought to a wider audience.
Finally, as she began her own journey as a filmmaker herself, with I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, it was once again Ebert who gave her films enthusiastic reviews, and through his Twitter postings, promoted her films to his followers and the public at large.
And it was after Follow was released that she sent him the picture of them together from years ago, when she was a little girl, to which Roger responded simply: “WOW!”
Julie Dash spoke about Roger’s enthusiastic support for her film Daughters of the Dust, when the film first came out and needed a way to break out and get the public’s attention. It was Roger’s constant praise and drum beating for her film that made all the difference, and helped to bring to the attention of the wider public. Julie thanked film his “overwhelming support of black cinema in the 20th and 21st century” and that "he allowed space for black films to dream.”
And she does bring up a sad, yet true point. Now that Roger is gone, who are the mainstream film critics with a worldwide following today, who sound out the call for black independent cinema? Is there anyone, any major film critic today in the mainstream media who, as Roger did, actively goes out to search and find small independent films of substance and value that the larger public should be aware of? Sadly there doesn’t seem to be one right now.
The New York Times? I hear they’ve just discovered this promising young black filmmaker who’s beginning to make a name for himself, named Spike Lee.
Entertainment Weekly? Not unless Beyonce is in it.
Ebony? Seriously? When was the last time you ever saw anything about black independent cinema in Ebony? The new editors there are still waiting to get that exclusive interview with Nat King Cole.
Sure, of course, we do, every single damn day here on S &A. But, in effect we’re “preaching to the choir”.
Yes, of course, you can say that social media networking has changed the rules of the game, and that filmmakers nowadays can beat the drums for their own films and bring them to the public's attention by themselves. But there still needs to be someone who can, as they used to say, separate the wheat from the chaff - what is worthwhile from the dreck.
Filmgoers lost a lot more than a film critic with the passing of Roger. They lost an advocate.