The art of criticism is, obviously, a subjective one—it’s impossible not to bring one’s sensibility and prior experiences to, say, a film, no matter how thoughtful you are. This has always made discussion of movies by black filmmakers tricky. If a movie by Spike Lee, for instance, fails to find a footing among mainstream critics, how much does it matter that most of those critics are white? Probably depends on the movie, right? And it also depends on the critic.
Roger Ebert never shied away from discussing race, nor was he afraid to recognize his own privilege. And never was this more evident than during the uproar surrounding Do the Right Thing, which divided critics at the time—some thought it a timely tour de force speaking truth about heightened racial tensions, while others considered it an irresponsible endorsement of violence against whites. Ebert wasn’t the only white critic who championed the film, of course; Vincent Canby of the Times gave it a glowing review, to cite just one other example. But Ebert was almost alone among white critics in approaching the touchy subject matter of the movie without any reservations, and with a sensitivity others did not (or could not) employ.
When answering those (mostly white) critics who wondered how Lee could possibly depict a predominantly minority urban space without any trace of guns or drugs, Ebert righly pointed out how Lee departed from Hollywood’s fetishizing of urban culture. “People live here,” he wrote of the film’s Brooklyn neighborhood.
It’s a neighborhood like those city neighborhoods in the urban movies of the Depression: People know one another and accept one another, and although there are problems, there also is a sense of community.
It is that simple, humanistic take that helped Ebert to champion black filmmakers throughout his career. (Even Bamboozled, a film that failed to impress the critic, merited a thoughtful response, a consideration of black filmmakers and performers more generally.) Just take a look at some of the films that have topped his lists as the best in a number of years: The Color Purple (directed by Steven Spielberg, of course, but based on the novel by Alice Walker and featuring a mostly black cast), Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Hoop Dreams (also made by a white director but focused on the lives of two young black men and their families), Eve’s Bayou. Whether or not you agree with each of those choices—Ebert himself went back and acknowledged the flaws in The Color Purple, though he still maintained Whoopi Goldberg as Celie was “perfect”—there aren’t that many white critics who considered all those films even for their top 10 lists, much less for number one spots. There still exists an often unconscious ghettoizing of movies by black filmmakers as simply “black films,” not among the truly “great” ones.
Ebert’s vocal support and sympathy for minority filmmakers went beyond the black community. At an infamous Sundance Q&A that followed a screening of Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, a white man in the audience asked the film’s Asian-American creators how they could portray their culture in such an “irresponsible” light. Ebert got up after him and, nearly shouting, pointed out that no one would ask such a question of white filmmakers, and that no one should ask it of minority filmmakers, either.
How is it that Ebert was able to do what so many other critics could not? He appeared to have an unusual amount of empathy, and a willingness to probe, to question, and finally to understand things that may not have been familiar to him. Writing for Slate a few years ago, Ebert defended the controversial Precious for, among other things, presenting such “physically attractive” mentors in the black community as the ones played in the film by Mariah Carey and Paula Patton. Those criticizing the movie for that reason “may not have been around many middle-class African-Americans,” he wrote. “[Director Lee] Daniels and his casting directors may have known more about the African-American norm than some audience members.” (It’s worth noting that Ebert’s wife of 20 years, Chaz, happens to be black.)
Even if you disagree with Ebert about that particular film, no one can say he wasn’t open to the possibilities of black creativity. And he opened the eyes of many readers to its possibilities as well.