Roger Ebert was someone we all seemed to know. For some, it was his familiar face. For others, it was his cogent commentary on films of the day, both on television and in the newspaper. I did know Roger a little bit (his wife, Chaz, too). We both graduated from the University of Illinois Champaign, and we both wrote for newspapers. Roger died April 4 after a decade-long battle with cancer.
I met him on an airplane when we were both headed to cover the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. He let me briefly sit in first class next to him to share stories about the Oak Park International Film Festival, which he later promoted in a blurb that year. He was also interested in Diversity in Oak Park, a one-hour documentary that Yves Hughes Jr. and I co-directed the same year we launched the film fest. Roger was tickled to hear that we interviewed a daughter of an Oak Park Klan member in the film. I handed him a DVD to check for himself before heading to coach for the remainder of the flight to Salt Lake City.
That week, we stayed in the same Park City hotel. I'd see him going and coming from various events. He was perhaps the only big-name movie reviewer who consistently raised racial, religious and political issues as part of his commentary.
I met Chaz a couple decades ago when she and other black lawyers gathered at a Bronzeville dinner. As I looked at Monday's funeral service in Holy Name Cathedral on TV news, I reflected on the great artistic and human rights work he (and Chaz) accomplished during his distinguished career.
"One of the things that I loved about Roger — besides the fact that he had the biggest heart I've ever seen — is that he really was a soldier for social justice," she said. Chaz added that he was inclusive to folks who had often been excluded from mainstream media — gays and the disabled, as well as religious and racial minorities. Businessman-activist Jonathan Jackson said, "Roger wrote about blacks as people, not problems." Many African-American cultural critics, like yours truly, would agree.
"Farewell to a legend" is how Fox News led off their top story during the noon hour, focusing on the death of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times movie critic.
"This has been such a beautiful service this morning," Chaz said at Holy Name. "He would love the majesty of it. He would love everything about it." Several political and religious celebrities spoke, including Governor Pat Quinn, St. Sabina's Rev. Michael Pfleger and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And a Mexican-American, Academy-nominated filmmaker-friend (The Mission) named Gregory Nava told the cathedral crowd about how Roger was a critic who tried to put himself into a viewer's seat.