This has been an interesting time for African-American directors. Despite #Oscarssowhite, Ava DuVarney had tremendous acclaim with Selma. Denzel Washington got a best picture nomination for his Fences adaptation, while getting Viola Davis a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress award. Barry Jenkins became the first African-American director responsible for a Best Picture winner. Three years earlier, British Steve McQueen was the first black man to direct a Best Picture winner with 12 Years a Slave.
I was oddly distracted by the idea of what Roger Ebert would think of all this. He championed films that could be seen as dealing with race or the struggles of African Americans, including several of his favorite movies of the year: The Color Purple (1985), Mississippi Burning (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), Hoop Dreams (1994, also his favorite film of the 1990s), Monster’s Ball (2001) and Crash (2005.) He was also a Chicago liberal, very happy with the election of Obama. In the documentary Life Itself, Ava DuVarney said his marriage to a black woman made him an honorary brother.
Looking at his earlier articles, he had championed the directors in their earlier films.
He wrote about communications he had with Ava Duvernay over her early film. This was at a time when she was a relatively obscure figure, and not directing blockbuster fantasy films for Disney. He gave her relatively obscure debut I Will Follow three and half stars.
Ebert gave Steve McQueen’s debut Hunger three and a half stars. Shame got four stars. The first of those films was about an IRA prisoner’s hunger strike, and the second was about a New York City executive’s sex addiction. Neither dealt with race or with black characters, although I doubt this was something Ebert would have considered a negative.
Barry Jenkins’ debut Medicine for Melancholy made less than $100,000. He gave it three and a half stars.
The main reason I think about Ebert in this context is that I’m familiar with his work. I’m sure there are plenty of other film critics, to say nothing of writers, directors and actors excited by new developments, and constant additions to the black film canon.