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I Saw Roger Ebert at the Oscars -- Did You?

02/23/2015 09:04 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015
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When I went to see the Oscar-nominated Selma directed by Ava DuVernay, I wondered what Roger Ebert would think of it.

What kind of review would he write? How would he write it? What personal experiences would he bring to it? It's these types of questions I always ask myself when I go to the movies. Every time I go see something in a theater, I never really go in alone, but Roger Ebert comes with me, as with questions of what Roger would write.

These are questions that will never be answered.

We will never know what Ebert thought about Selma or Boyhood. We will never know what criticism or nugget of wisdom he would give us about Birdman or The Theory of Everything. We are unknowing, because Ebert is no longer with us.

In death, Ebert's silence is deafening. I miss his presence deeply, and I read his past reviews in hopes of somehow grasping an idea of how he could write reviews that were so humble, human and full of empathy and compassion.

Ebert, as a critic, transcended film criticism.

His influence on movies is tremendous, which is why when the Oscar nominations for "Best Documentary Feature" went up, I -- as long with many others -- was heartbroken and livid that Steve James' documentary about Pulitzer prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert's life, Life Itself was not among the nominees. I was in disbelief.

Life Itself, directed by Steve James, was a documentary film about a writer who changed the way we view movies today. James carefully assembled a history of Ebert's life, detailing his early start in journalism as a student journalist at the Illini, his rise at the Chicago Sun-Times, his fame as a television film critic, his alcoholism, his sobriety, his women, his love for movies, his rivalry and friendship with Gene Siskel. Within the film, we saw rare footage of Ebert in his last days, full of humor to the end.

Through the film, we saw Ebert the good, Ebert the bad and Ebert the funny.

Life Itself detailed a flawed man, but as imperfect as he was, above everything, we saw his love for the cinema and his unparalleled talent, writing reviews that were critical, yet human.

However, what's most important about Life Itself isn't about how Roger came to be, or his history, or even his writing. It was about the multitudes of film makers, writers, reporters and creative minds whose lives were touched and changed forever because of Roger's words.

And that's what I saw at the Oscars.

I didn't see the harrowing absence of Life Itself in the nominations category, but the living presence of Ebert in every filmmaker there. He lives in DuVernay's Selma. He's alive in Birdman. And, he thrives in Boyhood.

There was one particular face I recognized from Life Itself at the Oscars, and that was Ava DuVernay, who directed Selma. She is the first black female director to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In Life Itself, DuVernay detailed an anecdote from her childhood in which her aunt took her to an Oscars' rehearsal where she met Roger Ebert for the first time. DuVernay recalled, with an enthusiasm that matched her own when she was a child, reaching out to Ebert yelling, "Thumbs up! Thumbs up!"

Duvernay came out with her first film in 2011, titled I Will Follow. The film followed the death of a beloved aunt, and detailed the harrowing nature of the death of a close one. It was in Life Itself that DuVernay revealed that "It was Ebert's review that really got to the heart of what I was trying to articulate."

DuVernay wrote a heartfelt email to Ebert with a childhood picture of her and Ebert together. In response, she got a touching blog post noting his own beloved aunt who introduced him to the movies.

In response to reading Ebert's blog post, DuVernay remembered breaking down crying. She stated that as a black woman, in a film world dominated by white males, she feared her work would be misread or misunderstood. However, with Ebert, she felt safe. She stated:

It's dangerous as a black woman to give something that you've made from your point of view, that's very steeped in your identity and your personhood, to a white man whose gaze is usually the exact opposite. To say 'you're the carrier of this film to the public; you're the one who's going to dictate whether or not if it has value.' You had a lot less fears with that with Roger, because you knew he was someone who was going to take it seriously and come with some sort of historical context, some sort of cultural nuance.

And she was right.

Ebert, in reviewing her film, emphasized that the film was about the grief about losing the one you love, and the void that is left because of it. Race, as what most critics would have focused on, was the last thing that Ebert noticed in it. He stated, "Why do I mention race? I wasn't going to. This is a universal story about universal emotions. Maybe I mention it because this is the kind of film black filmmakers are rarely able to get made these days, offering roles for actors who remind us here of their gifts."

In Selma, Ebert would be so proud of DuVernay.

And as we saw Oscar night, DuVernay stood proudly as the first black female director ever nominated for Best Picture with Selma. I looked back on her scene in Life Itself and instantly knew Ebert would be proud of her.

Roger once said, "The purpose of civilization and growth is to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."

Selma does just that, and more.

DuVernay created a work of art that not only detailed the accurate history of the black civil rights movement of American past, but a work of empathy in a relevant time where injustices against African-Americans are at an all-time high. In a time of too many Michael Browns, Tamir Rices and Trayvon Martins, empathy and compassion is desperately needed. There is immediacy to this empathy that can be sensed through Selma.

As someone who used to roll his eyes at the Ferguson protests, I can say that watching Selma has changed my perspective forever. In seeing how long these injustices run, I am no longer indifferent. This is the power of cinema, as testified by Ebert.

DuVemay is one of many new, young filmmakers whose careers were given life to because of Ebert's reviews. Ebert was always one to give life to new and varied voices who reflected the diversity and different shades of the American narrative. His reviews jump-started new, diverse voices such as Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Gregory Nava, Ramin Bahrani and even Steve James, whose films would have fallen under obscurity unless Roger Ebert hadn't brought perspective to it.

Ebert's writing made careers, and it allowed filmmakers like DuVernay the future to create masterpieces such as Selma and break barriers previously erected against black females in the film industry. Ebert's legacy lives on in DuVernay's work.

As I watched the Oscars on Sunday night, I noticed that Ebert hadn't left us at all. He didn't die. He was alive. He didn't lose. He was the biggest winner of all.

As much as I would have loved to see Life Itself win an Oscar -- or hell, even get nominated -- I don't think it would have done Ebert's legacy justice.

Ebert didn't need an Oscar to speak for him.

Ebert's voice and power lives on in DuVernay's Selma. Ebert is alive in Boyhood. He is alive in Birdman. He is alive and loud where movies exist and persist to make the world a better place.

The last sentence of his last blog post before he died said, "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

And, see him I did.

On Oscar night, I gave him two thumbs up.