Roger Ebert dead at 70: Legendary film critic was a champion of black film

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Roger Ebert, the beloved film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has passed away after a very long, public battle with thyroid cancer at the age of 70.

After over 40 years in the business, Ebert will likely be best remembered as one half of the “Two Thumbs Up” hosts of the movie review television series At the Movies, which he headlined alongside the late Gene Siskel and Richard Roeper for decades.

But the Pulitzer Prize winner, who is survived by his African-American wife, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, was also a great champion of black filmmakers and cinema.

Thumbs up for Spike and Denzel

For instance, Ebert was an early and vocal supporter of director Spike Lee’s. He would name Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X the top films of the year in 1989 and 1992 respectively.

Ebert was particularly fond of Malcolm X, which he named the ninth-greatest film of 1990s.

“Watching the film, I understood more clearly how we do have the power to change our own lives, how fate doesn’t deal all of the cards. The film is inspirational and educational — and it is also entertaining, as movies must be before they can be anything else,” Ebert wrote.

He also recognized Denzel Washington’s A-list star potential before it was widely accepted. In 1989, he placed a little-known thriller called The Mighty Quinn on his 10 best list and predicted big things for its star.

“The film stars Denzel Washington in one of those roles that creates a movie star overnight,” Ebert wrote in his rave review, adding, “In an effortless way that reminds me of Robert Mitchum, Michael Caine or Sean Connery in the best of the Bond pictures, he is able to be tough and gentle at the same time, able to play a hero and yet not take himself too seriously.”

For good measure, Ebert named The Color Purple the best film of 1985, Eve’s Bayou the best film of 1997 and Monster’s Ball the best film of 2001.

Honoring Hoop Dreams

In 1994, when the celebrated documentary Hoop Dreams, which followed two black youths vying to join the NBA, was snubbed by the Academy Awards, Ebert took it on as a personal cause.

Not only did he name the film the best of the year (and later, the decade) he publicly chided the Oscars for their oversight. He and his colleague Gene Siskel’s coverage of the film helped it reach a wider audience and helped open up the documentary film nominating process to a wider array of unscripted films.

Last fall it was announced that one of Ebert’s favorite directors, Martin Scorsese, would be teaming up with the Hoop Dreams filmmakers to make a film adaptation of the movie critic’s memoir Life Itself.

In recent years, as Ebert battled cancer and had to have his jaw removed, he became a ubiquitous presence on social media where among other things he was a boisterous supporter of President Barack Obama and other progressive causes.

The president offered his own heartfelt condolences for Ebert today in a statement which read:

“Michelle and I are saddened to hear about the passing of Roger Ebert. For a generation of Americans – and especially Chicagoans – Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive – capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical. Even amidst his own battles with cancer, Roger was as productive as he was resilient – continuing to share his passion and perspective with the world. The movies won’t be the same without Roger, and our thoughts and prayers are with Chaz and the rest of the Ebert family.”

‘A leave of presence’

Just yesterday Ebert made headlines by announcing with his characteristic wit that he was taking a “leave of presence” from his regular column because his cancer had reoccurred.

“It means I am not going away,” Ebert explained. “My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers hand picked and greatly admired by me. What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.”

Sadly, Ebert’s health failed him before he go the chance to realize his final fantasy. But he has left the gift of a treasure trove of insightful and entertaining film writing for current and future generations to enjoy.

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