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Posts Tagged ‘Roger Ebert’

I was profoundly moved by this incredible profile of film critic Roger Ebert, written by journalist Chris Jones for the latest issue of Esquire magazine. Ebert, you may know, can no longer eat, drink, or speak, due to a series of surgeries to combat cancer of the thyroid, salivary gland, and jaw. He communicates primarily through his writing and a computerized voice program. Yet, he is more full of joy and in tune with life than he’s ever been. As Jones observes about Ebert:

There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.

Then Jones quotes this reflection from Ebert himself:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, 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.

Ebert, the article says, is slowly dying. And he knows it. Yet the way he’s currently facing life certainly offers lessons on living for all of us.

I was reminded of a post that I wrote almost one year ago reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the death of Gene Siskel, Ebert’s famous partner in film criticism, and the wonderful though often combative friendship that they shared. Jones’s profile references Ebert’s poignant tribute to his late friend, and reading Jones’s article caused me to go back and re-read Ebert’s piece, too. It was time well spent.

I don’t always know exactly what to do after reading stories as heartrending as Jones’s profile of Ebert, or Ebert’s own written memories of Siskel. But I do appreciate Mr. Ebert’s insight: “We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

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DO_THE_RIGHT_THINGIt’s hot in Chicago. Summer is officially doing its thing. Like so often with the weather here, one day you’re shoveling snow from the driveway, the next you’re listening to the A/C crank up and praying that the sump pump kicks in after the latest monsoon.

So here we are again in 90-degree heat and humidity, and I’m thinking, How appropriate, given that this summer marks the 20th anniversary of Spike Lee’s classic and enduringly controversial film Do the Right Thing. The movie first hit theaters on June 30, 1989.

Those of you who have seen the film will recall that it takes place on one of the longest and hottest days of the summer in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyevesant neighborhood. Lee begins the film slowly and deliberately, painting a picture of a predominantly black neighborhood made up of a diversity of people, characters, and races that each bring something unique to the urban landscape. It’s not Norman Rockwell harmony, but it’s a real-life community where disparate parts manage to get along. But, as is usually the case when it comes to race relations in America, tension and unrest are simmering beneath the surface.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, please forgive (or avoid) the spoilers that follow the original 1989 trailer below.

Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery man for Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American whose restaurant has been on the same corner since old days (i.e., before the neighborhood became mostly black). The blacks in Bed-Stuy have a sort of love-hate relationship with Sal’s Pizzeria. While it’s nice to have a spot for tasty pizza in the ‘hood, there’s an ambivalence about the fact that one of the community’s primary businesses is owned by a white man. During the film’s climax, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) confront Sal to demand he put a black face among his all-white wall of fame. A fight ensues, and when the police show up, Raheem is choked to death by an NYPD officer, which sets off a horrible riot.

This 1989 review by critic Roger Ebert offers a good overview of the movie. Suffice it to say, Spike Lee’s film, like any good piece of art, is open to a variety of interpretations. He doesn’t tell you what to think, though it’s easy for some to come away with the sense that, ultimately, the film is a call for some degree of black nationalism and militancy—or for black folk to at least keep the option available.

An obvious question for us today is, how does Do the Right Thing play in this so-called “age of Obama”? Is it still relevant? I’ll resist calling this era “post-racial,” for I’m sure many of you could quickly tick off a thousand reasons why it’s not. But we’ve clearly moved into a different and better era of racial understanding from what we faced in America 20 years ago, right? (Let the debate begin.) We’ve survived Rodney King, the O.J. trial, Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and the first couple seasons of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. What’s more, we elected an African American president.

Ironically, it turns out that Do the Right Thing was the film that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date, and it consequently holds a special place in their personal history. Newsweek wonders why this seemingly minor but potentially significant fact didn’t get played up more by the media during the presidential race last year, when Obama’s opponents were looking for any and all evidence of his racial and political militancy. And TheRoot.com thinks it’s odd, though not surprising, that Obama himself rarely mentions that aspect of he and Michelle’s first date. (Though, when one listens to Obama’s ruminations on race in America today, you can hear his desire to acknowledge the multiple points of view that usually exist on the different sides of the color and class line in our nation.)

Also at TheRoot.com, journalist Natalie Hopkinson offers a fascinating reassessment of the film’s message and legacy. While she concedes the film’s cultural importance—and confesses that she reveled in the righteous indignation that the film inspired in blacks who had felt oppressed and wrongly profiled for much too long, in retrospect Hopkinson questions the film’s underlying message of angry black nationalism. She suggests that what will be needed for true racial uplift today is not a spirit of racial separation but one of multiracial cooperation. She writes:

In 1989, Do the Right Thing rightly railed against police brutality and institutional racism that reduced the life chances and quality of life of many black people in urban areas. If combating those conditions, which still exist, is what we mean by fighting the power, I will be the first to put on boxing gloves.

But 20 years on, Buggin Out’s kind of fight feels futile. Symbolically and literally speaking, we are the Power. We need Sal’s Famous Pizzerias in the neighborhood, and we need the Mookies of the world to open their own businesses, too. It’s messy. It’s sometimes tense, often uncomfortable. We won’t always understand each other. But come on back. We need that slice.

Hopkinson’s essay, I believe, rightly calls us to “do a new thing”—that is, to allow forgiveness and solidarity to trump our lingering racial resentment, bitterness, and fear. But I don’t think her change of heart about Do the Right Thing necessarily diminishes what the film was trying to do those two decades ago.

Ultimately, Spike Lee was challenging his viewers to wrestle with their prejudices and misconceptions about the American condition. To his credit, Lee understood that this would mean different things to different people, and provoke different responses based on each person’s life experience. In that way, Do the Right Thing was—and is—a bold piece of filmmaking and a disturbing but effective tool for an honest discussion of racial reconciliation in America.

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Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, back in the early ’80s I remember watching Sneak Previews on the Chicago public television station, WTTW, Channel 11. This was the very first incarnation of the movie review show that would eventually launch its hosts, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, into pop-culture superstardom. In my opinion, they are the greatest American film critics–and I don’t just say that because they’re Chicago guys, though it was cool to know they were based here.

I still have fond memories of those early Sneak Previews shows. In fact, I can remember how excited I was to see Siskel and Ebert’s reviews of what would become some of my favorite childhood movies–Superman II, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans.

Sneak Previews eventually went into commercial syndication as At the Movies and finally Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. I loved those two guys together. Siskel was a Yale graduate and didn’t stomach foolishness that easily; Ebert was often the one with more populist tastes. But they both had very high standards. I loved the way they’d argue about movies. Sometimes it looked like the taller Siskel wanted to strangle his rotund partner, but then in the very next segment they would fall all over each other in agreement. I loved their passion for the movies and celebration of good art. I loved their “two thumbs up” (or “two thumbs down,” when a movie deserved it). But mostly, I loved watching their friendship evolve. Even as they bickered and mixed it up, you could tell these two guys genuinely cared for each other.

In a way, their relationship reminds me of what real reconciliation is about. The goal isn’t to always agree or pretend to get along in a superficial way. It’s about deep, passionate, and honest relationship. One where we might lay into each other sometimes, but by the end of the episode it’s clear that we love each other and that we’ll be back in the same aisle seats next week.

Well, today is the tenth anniversary of Gene Siskel’s untimely death, and his surviving partner Roger Ebert (who has been facing serious health challenges of his own lately) has written one of the most poignant, loving, and profound tributes to a friend that I’ve ever read. He opens with this:

Gene Siskel and I were like tuning forks. Strike one, and the other would pick up the same frequency. When we were in a group together, we were always intensely aware of one another. Sometimes this took the form of camaraderie, sometimes shared opinions, sometimes hostility. But we were aware. If something happened that we both thought was funny but weren’t supposed to, God help us if one caught the other’s eye. We almost always thought the same things were funny. That may be the best sign of intellectual communion.

Gene died ten years ago on February 20, 1999. He is in my mind almost every day. I don’t want to rehearse the old stories about how we had a love/hate relationship, and how we dealt with television, and how we were both so scared the first time we went on Johnny Carson that, backstage, we couldn’t think of the name of a single movie, although that story is absolutely true. Those stories have been told. I want to write about our friendship.

From there, Ebert shares an eloquent flood of memories, both funny and sad. Even if you weren’t fans of this pair, you might want to have some tissue handy. I encourage you to read the piece and think about the depth of the friendships in your own life. And as you do, please say a prayer for Mr. Ebert.

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