Friday, April 5, 2013

Overlooked by Oscars: Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize.  For the way he elevated film journalism, the way he invited others to embrace the art of classic films and for the way he embraced diversity in films and film reviewers, I would have given Roger Ebert an honorary Oscar.  He deserved one.  He inspired millions of people to appreciate movies.  He contributed greatly to the Hollywood community.  Tributes by people way more intellectual, celebrated and popular than I am will be written about him.  But, I'd like to write a few notes of personal appreciation for the work of the late Roger Ebert.  In his TV career, we see both the growth and decline of television.  Watching Siskel & Ebert on PBS' Sneak Previews became a weekly religious experience for me.  Like going to church on Sunday.  The show was fresh, intelligent, informative, challenging and also entertaining. The Chicago-based show was the Midwest at its best in that it was never pompous.  It kept that same working class feel when it became At The Movies.  Could this show even get a green light in today's TV market?  Two middle-aged reporters -- one tall and balding, the other full-figured and bushy-haired and wearing glasses.
Neither was exactly young and hot-looking but we didn't care.  It was all about content.  Not cosmetics.  The popularity of this show and the team of Siskel & Ebert gave a respectability to the movie critic on TV.  One of my favorite classic films is Born Yesterday, directed by George Cukor.  Judy Holliday repeated her Broadway success and won the Oscar for Best Actress of 1950.  In this tale of a "dumb blonde," we really get a Declaration of Independence. Made during the dark years of Hollywood blacklisting, the spine of the story is freedom from tyranny.  William Holden plays the bookworm journalist who becomes sort of a private tutor to a hood's ditzy girlfriend.  The journalist takes her on a tour of famous government sites in Washington, DC (where the story takes place) and reads her an article he wrote called "The Yellowing Democratic Manifesto."  It's over-written with high-falutin', highbrow words.  When she doesn't understand any of it, he breaks it down into everyday language.  His article basically says that we've got to pay attention to our human rights handed down from the Founding Fathers.  This country is only as good as the people in it.  She replies, "Then why didn't you say so?"  She's the voice of the people.

Some movie critics are like Holden's character before Billie Dawn replies "Then why didn't you say so?"  They seem to be writing to impress other upscale critics.  Not to relate to the masses.  Ebert related to the masses.  He seemed approachable, like a regular guy.  Watch a David Edelstein film review segment on CBS Sunday Morning or listen to him on NPR's Fresh Air.  Compared to Ebert on camera and in print, Edelstein is "The Yellowing Democratic Manifesto" from that scene in Born Yesterday.

Another thing:  From my two decades in New York, I can tell you there are many critics of color.  Many.  I've seen them at movie screenings and on movie junkets.  But you don't see them on TV.  Many of the minority film critics that I've seen at screenings for what some would call "black films" are also at the screenings for a new Meryl Streep movie.  But some white critics who attend the Meryl Streep screenings don't attend all the screenings for the "black films."

I do not mean to pick on him, but let me reference David Edelstein again.  In his NPR review of 2005's Hustle & Flow, he called Terrence Howard a new actor who was "like a young Samuel L. Jackson."  No he wasn't.  He was like a middle-aged Terrence Howard.  From 1992 to 2001, black viewers saw Terrence Howard play Jackie Jackson (of the Jackson Family), Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King associate and civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy in TV biopics.  He had an important supporting role opposite Richard Dreyfuss in 1995's Mr. Holland's Opus.  We saw him that same year in the social commentary film, Dead Presidents, directed by the Hughes Brothers.  He had a major role in the summertime box office hit of 2000, Big Momma's House starring Martin Lawrence.  Roger Ebert knew this and he knew it when the Chicago Film Critics Association hailed Howard for his 1999 performance in The Best Man with its predominantly black cast.  Terrence Howard went on to be a Best Actor Oscar nominee for Hustle & Flow.

Ebert paid attention to black films, black filmmakers and black actors in big studio releases and in small independent features.  He embraced diversity onscreen and, if you've ever seen the lovely Mrs. Ebert, in his personal life.  When initial news broke that he was reviving his PBS association with Roger Ebert presents At The Movies, the original team was quite diverse.  Two black film critics were in place -- dreadlocked Elvis Mitchell and San Francisco newspaper columnist Omar Moore.

There were cast changes made before the show premiered...



....as you can see.  The new team looked younger and more "suburban".  Sadly, the revival was canceled.

But "Bravo" to Mr. Ebert for the willingness to show America that black film contributors do exist -- and that Elvis Mitchell isn't the only one.  He might just be the only one TV producers think there is.

As a viewer, I was always frustrated to see only white folks on TV telling me why The Color Purple, Do The Right Thing and The Help were important films that I needed to see.  The critics saw segregation in the storylines of the movies.  How come they never noticed the lack of racial diversity in their own field of film critics on TV?  Why were people of color not part of the discussion?  Ebert noticed us and our films.  He realized that Driving Miss Daisy winning the Oscar for Best Picture of 1989 while the critically acclaimed Do The Right Thing by Spike Lee didn't even get nominated that same year made a statement about race in Hollywood.

This film-lover will miss the writing and observations of Roger Ebert.  True wit, knowledge and affection for film as art was such a joy over the unimaginative snarkiness that infects too much film writing on social media today.  He wasn't just a great film critic.  He was a great teacher.  He deserved a special Oscar.  He gave millions of us a better view of the movies for quite a long time.

Let's extend our condolences to Roger Ebert's wonderful wife, Chaz.

Siskel & Ebert began their TV union on WTTW, Chicago's PBS station.  That was on Sneak Previews. Later, they went into syndication with Buena Vista for their At The Movies review show.  In the 1980s, was contacted by WTTW to audition to be half of the new Sneak Previews team.  To be contacted for that audition was an honor that still fills me with pride because of the standard Siskel & Ebert set.




6 comments:

  1. Thank you for the kind words about one of my heroes, Roger Ebert. You are right. He supported urban films and black oriented films to a great extent. Do you remember the 1997 film EVE'S BAYOU? Roger was the only critic to name that film as the best film of that year.

    I shed many tears yesterday when I learned of his death. He had a tremendous influence on my love of the movies. I remember staying up late on Sunday nights just to watch his movie review show with Gene Siskel. Those years bring back so many fond memories. I was so glad to have met Roger once some 11 years ago.

    And yes, I do hope that at next year's Oscar, the Academy honors him with an honorary Oscar. As I heard actress Glenn Close state today about Roger's death, "Roger was a big part of the film community." President Obama stated that "movies will never be the same again without Roger" and Oprah Winfrey said that "Roger and Gene are together again. The end of an era." Those are fitting tributes for a man who meant so much to me and to the world of cinema.

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  2. Roger's attention to EVE'S BAYOU is the perfect example of what I meant. I am still grateful to him for that. I truly do think he was worthy of an honorary Oscar for his contributions to the film community. Oprah got one. Roger rates one. Bestowed a post-humous Oscar could be given to his widow.

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  3. It would be ok if he got an Oscar posthumously but damn it would have been nicer if they did it while he was alive. He was very special. Yesterday out of habit I went to his website to read his latest reviews and then remembered. I'm going to miss him.

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  4. I wish he'd gotten an Oscar while he was alive. They gave one to Oprah. But talents like Roger Ebert and Mel Blanc and groundbreaking actress/film and TV director Ida Lupino never got special Oscars for major contributions to Hollywood. No offense to Oprah.

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  5. The 1994 documentary HOOP DREAMS, which follows two black inner city Chicago youths as they pursue their dreams of playing professional basketball in the NBA, is the most perfect example of Roger's support of urban films. Roger named it the best film of the 1990's decade. It's a riveting, thoroughly engrossing, heartbreaking, and truthful film. Fantastic.

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  6. Oh, man, Thomas! I vividly recall seeing that show when he reviewed HOOP DREAMS. Ebert had such passion for that documentary. Yet another reason why we appreciated him so.

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