Growing up in Chicago, I loved reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews in the Sun-Times, and then seeing him duke it out with Gene Siskel on their TV show. I often thought that Siskel was high-hatting Ebert, who seemed by far the more likable of the two.
I was fortunate enough to interview Ebert ten years ago for Progressive Radio and for the August 2003 issue of The Progressive magazine.
He wasn't arrogant at all, and he talked freely with me for about a half hour.
He made an extravagant claim: "Movies record human nature in a better way than any other art form," and then defended that assertion.
He mentioned several of his favorite political movies, including "Do the Right Thing," and "Hoop Dreams," and "Dead Man Walking," and "City of God."
He noted that "class is often invisible in America in the movies.... We don't have a lot of class-conscious filmmaking."
And he fervently defended the right of actors to express their views on social issues.
"Most Americans don't understand the First Amendment, don't understand the idea of freedom of speech, and don't understand that it's the responsibility of the citizen to speak out," he said. "If Hollywood stars speak out, oddly enough, the people who mostly seem to hear them are the rightwing, so that Fox News can put on its ticker tape in Times Square a vile attack on Michael Moore, and Susan Sarandon is a punch line." But Moore and Sarandon, he said, "are responsible and are saying what they believe." He added: "You know, if you're good enough to be the best actor of your generation, which is probably what Sean Penn is, you're probably not dumb. And anyone who's ever heard Susan Sarandon speak for a while knows that she's pretty smart."
He also defended his own right to speak out:
"I write op-ed columns for the Chicago Sun-Times, and people send me e-mails saying, 'You're a movie critic. You don't know anything about politics.' Well, you know what, I'm 60 years old, and I've been interested in politics since I was on my daddy's knee.... I know a lot about politics."
And he made an observation about the hostility he got from the rightwing. "When I write a political column for the Chicago Sun-Times, when liberals disagree with me, they send in long, logical e-mails explaining all my errors. I hardly ever get well-reasoned articles from the right. People just tell me to shut up. That's the message: 'Shut up. Don't write anymore about this. Who do you think you are?'"
Roger Ebert never backed down. When George W. Bush was President, Ebert said he acted like God was sending him in plays from the sidelines -- a perfect image for our deluded 43rd president.
And he kept cranking out the columns and the Tweets throughout his cancer bouts until he died, which I really admired.
He was a lovable man, with a child-like adoration for the movies, which he never lost.
Ten years ago, when we were through with that interview, I walked him back to his car, and I saw his license plate: "Movies."
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Rumsfeld's Distorting Mirror on Iraq."
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