How Ebert Championed Diversity in Film

A look back at how the late film critic often saw the nuances in films about people of color.

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Roger Ebert attends the Chicago Public Library Foundation gala in 2011. (Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)

Among the tributes to the likability, insight and journalistic skill of America’s most well-known film critic, Roger Ebert, was praise for the way Ebert expressed his appreciation for diversity in his professional and personal lives.

Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times critic who became more broadly well-known as half of the television team of Siskel and Ebert, died at 70 on Thursday after a long battle with thyroid cancer.

Ebert’s appreciation of diversity was wide-ranging. He is survived by his African American wife, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert. Oprah Winfrey’s website posted a piece about their two dates in the 1980s, during which he encouraged the then-host of a modest local TV show, “AM Chicago,” to go into syndication. As the cliche goes, the rest is history.

Roger Ebert is one of my Asian American heroes, because he helped change the face of Asian American film after he famously responded to a (white) heckler during the Q&A after a screening of Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow at Sundance in 2002,” Joz Wang, who uses the pen name jozjozjoz, wrote Thursday on the website 8Asians.com.

She quoted from a transcript of Ebert’s remarks:

“I was on a panel today with Chris Eyre, the Native American director. And he said, that for a long time, his people, American Indians, had always had to play some kind of a function, like they were the source of spirituality, or the source of great wisdom and they spoke to the trees and the wind and so forth. And he wanted to make a movie that allowed Native Americans to be people. People in some cases who are alcoholics or who are vigilantes, or in prison (music interrupts). And what I find very offensive and condescending about your statement, is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’ This film has the right to be about these people and Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to ‘represent’ their people. . . .”

Wesley Morris, a black journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism last year while at the Boston Globe, added to that thought Friday on the Grantland site:

Ebert did a lot of reading, particularly on social issues,” Morris wrote. “No major critic did more for black movies than he did. He championed great filmmakers like Spike Lee and Charles Burnett. He lifted up directors like John Singleton and Matty Rich, finding the upside in some of their mediocre filmmaking without ever seeming to damn with faint praise, lower his standards, or lie. Their filmmaking might not have been spectacular, but he deemed it morally necessary.

“That Ebert married a black attorney named Chaz Hammelsmith in 1992 doesn’t seem relevant to his racial sagacity and yet it does: He could see her radiance. Neither on television nor in print was there any kind of white guilt, just empathy and an uncanny sense of the nuances of racial politics.

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