My colleagues here at ThinkProgress are writing about Roger Ebert, the great critic for the Chicago Sun-Times who died today at 70 after many years of surviving cancer, as a liberal, and his voice is undoubtedly a loss to liberalism. His vocal interventions on politics, particularly as he took to Twitter, a medium where he bloomed after losing the use of his voice, seem to have taken some of his readers by surprise, even angered them. But to me, it’s impossible to read Ebert’s writing as a critic and not be struck by his politics, and how his political and aesthetic understandings came together to inform his understanding of what made movies work, what made them brave, and what made them fail.
Ebert’s reviews were always deeply alive to human concerns, rather than exclusively aesthetic ones. Re-reading his review of The Godfather, it’s striking that Ebert praises Francis Ford Coppola’s structural decisions. But he takes time to note a moment when the movie turns away from violence: “Notice how the undertaker is told ‘some day, and that day may never come, I will ask a favor of you,’ and how when the day comes, the favor is not violence (as in a conventional movie),’ but Don Vito’s desire to spare his wife the sight of his son’s maimed body.” And he asks the reader “Now here is a trivia question: What is the name of Vito’s wife?” In the midst of one of the greatest movies ever made about men, it’s critical to him to ask what the treatment of women means for the male characters, and for the movie, which made strategic decisions to eliminate major sections of Mario Puzo’s novel told from the perspective of women.
He could be as attuned to the ideas in movies as he was in their entertainment value, as in his analysis of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, in which he identified a flaw that shifts this movie, long considered a landmark in Hollywood’s treatment of race, away from a discussion of race at all. “What it boils down to, then,” he wrote,”is that the two fathers are overcome by implied attacks on their masculinity. The race question becomes secondary; what Tracy really has to decide is if he feels inadequate as a man. Kramer accomplishes this transition so subtly you hardly notice it. But it is the serious flaw in his plot, I think…Here is a film about interracial marriage that has the audience throwing rice. The women in the audience can usually be counted on to identify with the love story, I suppose. But what about those men? Will love conquer prejudice? I wonder if Kramer isn’t sneaking up on one of the underlying causes of racial prejudice when he implies that the fathers feel their masculinity threatened.”
He wasn’t a litmus-test reviewer, judging movies on single decisions or statements, but balanced different elements of a film in making up his judgements. This kind of thinking was clear in his reading of Gone With The Wind in Ebert’s Four-Star Reviews. Ebert was scathing about the movie’s uncritical use of Margaret Mitchell’s text, which describes the slave-holding South as “a l and of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields,” writing acidly “One does not have to ask if the slaves saw it the same way.” And he was not kind to the balance of concerns in the film. “The movie sidesteps the inconvenient fact that plantation gentility was purchased with the sweat of forced labor (there is more sympathy for Scarlett getting calluses on her pretty little hands than for all the great crimes of slavery).” But he read the film as a film, noting how some elements of it weighed against others, saying “to its major African American characters it does at least grant humanity and complexity. Hattie McDaniel, as Mammy, is the most sensible and clear-sighted person in the entire story.” In that same review he championed the need to depict even “values and assumptions fundamentally different from our own,” because “A politically correct GWTW would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.” It’s a piece I wish every person who condemned Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty as an endorsement of torture had read before putting fingers to keyboard.
And he recognized that movies could, in a way that political parties often prove incapable of, represent the confusions and contradictions of America’s approach to the most difficult issues of our time. In Ebert’s Four-Star Reviews (which I’m relying on heavily now because his site is, justifiably, swamped), he writes of Do The Right Thing: “Of course it is confused. of course it wavers between middle-class values and street values. Of course it is not sure whether it believes in liberal pieties, or militancy. Of course some of the characters are sympathetic and others are hateful—and of course some of the likable characters do bad things. Isn’t that the way it is in America today? Anyone who walks into this film expecting answers is a dreamer or a fool. But anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn’t paying attention.”
In Life Itself, Ebert’s extraordinary memoir, published in 2011, he reflects on his experience with the civil rights movements, both in his dating life and in his work as a critic. “Later in the 1960s Negros became blacks. As a movie critic, I could watch that happening,” he remembers. “The new usage first appears in my reviews around 1967 or 1968. Afros. Angela Davis. Black exploitation movies. Black is beautiful. Long interviews with Ossie Davis, Brock Peters, Sidney Poitier, Abbey Lincoln, Yaphet Kotto. What point am I making? None. It’s not as if I sat at their feet and learned about race. It’s more that the whole climate was changing, growing more free and open, and the movies were changing, too.” A more open world means movies that are open to new ideas, new actors, new stories, new settings. It’s one of the most honorable ways I can think of to be a liberal critic: to be a champion of both a more humane world, and of better movies.