SPOTLIGHT April 2019: Chaz Ebert, Filmanthropist and Activist

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The term most often used to describe Chaz Ebert is probably “force of nature.” Most of us come to the world of movies through love of cinematic storytelling, but in her case, it was through love of the most influential movie critic of all time, Roger Ebert.

LIFE BEFORE ROGER

Chaz was a successful lawyer, following the career she dreamed of since she was a child, when she fell in love with Roger, left her practice at a prestigious Chicago law firm, and began running his business, including television, books, and what was then called the Overlooked Film Festival in Roger’s home town of Urbana/Champaign, Illinois and is now known as Ebertfest. This year’s festival runs from April 10-13, with the Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace on the opening night and a celebration of the on-air partnership of Roger Ebert and Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper in “Ebert & Roeper.”

Chaz grew up in Chicago as the eighth of nine children. Her father was a meat processor and her mother was a volunteer precinct captain, inspiring Chaz’s early interest in politics. Roger described her early years as curious, energetic, and ambitious. “Her school yearbook shows her on every other page, a member of everything from the National Honor society to Spanish Club, and as vice president of the senior class to best dancer,” he wrote in an essay called “Roger Loves Chaz.” After law school, Chaz became the first African-American lawyer at the Midwest office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and then she worked in constitutional law and as a defense litigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before joining the law firm then called Bell Boyd & Lloyd. One of her cases brought her to a meeting with a young law student named Barack Obama.

CHAZ LOVES ROGER

Chaz was a divorced mother of two when she met Roger, then 50 years old and never married. He was having dinner with Eppie Lederer (the advice columnist Ann Landers) when he spotted Chaz at another table, having dinner with some people he knew. He was immediately drawn to her, so he brought Lederer over to introduce her to his friends as a chance to meet Chaz and ask for her card, pretending he wanted to follow up for some legal advice. “You sly fox,” said Lederer, who had spent enough years writing about relationships to know exactly what was going on.

Chaz was not professionally involved in films before meeting Roger, as she explained in an interview with Metro USA.

    I lived in Chicago, so I’m sure I must have read his reviews and watched his television show. Before we started dating, I didn’t know his show was national. I also didn’t know he had written “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” One of my fellow lawyers told me. I saw “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” when it came out and I loved it. I was in college during the Russ Meyer years, and college students loved Russ Meyer movies. I just had to go back and make sure it was good.
    I’m also — I’m reluctant to say this but I have to tell the truth: Gene Siskel was my favorite at one time. Once I got to know them both personally, Roger was head and shoulders above Gene. And I loved Gene Siskel. Roger embraced foreign films and he embraced independent films. He made it his business to go to so many festivals. He learned about the film industry, and we would go to the technical side and talk to cinematographers and grips and the hair and make-up people. He wanted to understand every aspect that goes into filmmaking. I respected that so much.

THUMBS UP FOR ROGER AND THE MOVIES

They fell in love fast and deep. They got married and Chaz left the law firm to become Roger’s partner in business as well as in life. For ten years they had a blissful life of film festivals, and Roger’s television appearances and best-selling books, and then Roger was diagnosed with cancer, which recurred in more devastating form four years later. Surgery removed most of his jaw, making it impossible for him to speak. He used a notepad and a Stephen Hawking-style voice program on his computer to communicate. He was also a pioneer of online communications and social media, reaching out to encourage writers around the world and engaging in spirited online conversations with his readers.

ROGER LOVES CHAZ

Chaz was by his side every minute, making it possible for Roger to continue to work, including writing movie reviews until shortly before his death in 2013. There has never been a more touching love story on film, feature or documentary, than Chaz and Roger’s, in Life Itself, the Stephen James film based on Roger’s autobiography of the same name. Or you can just read what Roger had to say. Here is an excerpt.

    “She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading. If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude. I was very sick. I might have vegetated in hopelessness. This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.
    Does that sound too dramatic? You were not there. She was there every day, visiting me in the hospital whether I knew it or not, becoming an expert on my problems and medications, researching possibilities, asking questions, making calls, even giving little Christmas and Valentine’s Day baskets to my nurses, who she knew by name.”

SHARING SOBRIETY

Chaz has spoken frankly about the connection she and Roger shared as recovering alcoholics. The dinner Roger had with Eppie Lederer was after she had accompanied him to an AA meeting. The experience of acknowledging their problems with alcohol and seeking help gave their relationship a foundation of candor that was vitally important to both of them. In an interview with WNYC, Chaz said,

    I tell you, I think it was a gift, because when you are someone who is sober and you’re very grateful for being sober, you realize, that’s a process that increases your compassion for other people. It really helps you to minimize the small talk, and you’re more willing to talk more openly and honestly with someone about the things that are important in life. And so, when Roger and I first met, I think we fell right into a conversation that turned out to be our lifelong conversation with each other.

LIFE AFTER ROGER: A LIVING LEGACY

Chaz brought together the young writers Ebert most admired to carry on rogerebert.com with lively, insightful reviews, interviews, festival coverage, and commentary.

Editor at Large Matt Zoller Seitz says “I’ve been a journalist for 30 years, and Chaz is far and away the best publisher I’ve ever worked for. She’s not only involved and aware, she is thoughtful and compassionate. She genuinely cares about every one of the people who works for her. She’s constantly looking for ways to make people’s lives a little better.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, Godfrey Cheshire, Chaz Ebert at EbertFest

Editor Brian Tellerico adds “Chaz Ebert balances personal interests with business acumen in a way that should be a model for everyone. She is not only incredibly passionate about all of her various projects but remarkably aware of how to use that passion to elevate not only her voice, but those whom she supports. Plenty of people have power in the publishing and producing worlds, but no one else uses it in such a complex, fascinating way as Chaz Ebert — a true leader in merging philanthropy, empowerment, and artistic vision with a business mindset.”

And she has kept the Ebertfest film festival going at the magnificent, newly restored Virginia Theater, with its annual traditions, including screening of a silent film with live musical accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra.

The festival coordinator, Andrew Michael Hall, says, “With humility, Chaz Ebert would say her goal for the festival is to uphold Roger’s standards. But, in truth, Chaz has become as integral to Ebertfest as Roger was himself. While she may be the public face of the event, Chaz is anything but a figurehead. She is very much hands-on when it comes to decision making. It is Chaz’s understanding of the festival’s mission that moves the event forward and Chaz’s commitment to empathy and diversity that keep the festival’s values anchored. But what also makes her so successful in her stewardship of Ebertfest is her acknowledgement and inclusion of the many groups of people invested in the festival’s legacy. Chaz talks about the people involved as the Ebertfest family, and her decisions are always grounded in an understanding of all the participants – the critics, filmmakers and the audience – as a single community.”

One of the rogerebert.com writers, Sheila O’Malley, spoke about some of Chaz’s most significant contributions: “Chaz Ebert has done the world of film criticism – and culture, in general – a great service in keeping Rogerebert.com alive, continuing the legacy of her late husband. Her energy is boundless! One of her greatest contributions was initiating an annual “Women Writers Week” on the site, where every piece on the main page of Rogerebert.com is written by a woman, a necessary corrective to a male-dominated field. When her husband died, it was a huge loss, but Chaz knew he would want the work to continue. She has made certain that it will. She loves movies so much, and her enthusiasm is catching. She supports people. I will also be eternally grateful to her for accepting the short film I wrote to be screened at Ebertfest in 2017. She really cares about the great things people are up to. If you’re doing cool things, she wants to know about it, and makes sure to signal-boost you so everyone knows about it. If you’ve been in her presence, you know how much she loves what she does. She’s an awe-inspiring leader. I admire her so much.”

Chaz may not have planned for a life in the world of movies, but she has taken her passion for justice and her skill as an advocate to continue Roger’s vital engagement with film and his generous mentorship of young writers.

Supporting Young Filmmakers

She gives one hundred percent all the time, whether it is a grand vision for a new project, a homemade gourmet meal for a staff meeting hosted at her art-filled home, or a thoughtful gesture to someone who needs a little support. And she is always looking for ways to reach out to voices of those who could use some help getting heard.

Assistant editor Matt Fagerholm says, “Chaz embodies the very principles that she upholds on a daily basis: kindness, compassion, forgiveness and empathy. Whether she’s talking to a sold-out crowd at Ebertfest or holding a meeting with her editors, she makes you feel at home. Working for her has been both a tremendous privilege and one of the great joys of my life.”

One of her most important initiatives is the annual Women Writers Week, which features and highlights previous writing by women on the site as well as coverage of the new releases. Even more important, she made rogerebert.com the first major site of any kind, not just those covering media, to have a commitment to total gender parity in the writing on the site. It was a great honor for me to be brought on as the site’s first woman on the editorial team.

Chaz with Women Filmmakers and Critics at EbertFest

She has other diversity programs in mind as well. Chaz is also working on expanding into a full-scale media company as well as working to make sure Roger’s writing is widely available.

But what means the most to Chaz is the theme that connects everything she does. Roger famously described movies as an empathy machine. “If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. And that, to me, is the most noble thing that good movies can do and it’s a reason to encourage them and to support them and to go to them.” Chaz has made empathy central to all of her projects. Just one example is the coordination of Ebertfest each year with the Alliance for Inclusion and Respect (AIR), a group that works to counter the stigma of disabilities and mental illness. The festival always includes a panel discussion and film related to empathy and inclusion and outside the theater where the movies are shown, AIR members sell their crafts to filmgoers.

In the Metro USA interview, Chaz described her evolving role:

    I stayed behind the scenes deliberately. It’s not because I was shy. I was a trial attorney. I was used to being in the courtroom eye. But I was always advocating on behalf of other people. I only went into the public eye after Roger lost his physical voice. So I was advocating on behalf of him. I became his voice. Now I’m advocating for him again. His legacy means so much to me, that people know the good things he did.

WHY WE CHOSE HER

Chaz Ebert deserves SPOTLIGHT status for many reasons, starting with her commitment to women’s voices as critics and feature/interview writers on rogerebert.com and as filmmakers and presenters at Ebertfest. >Most of all, we salute her own voice, her commentary and the example she sets of vision, leadership, and support. As a cherished member of AWFJ and the publisher of several other AWFJ members, we are endlessly grateful, and we look forward to great things as she takes on new challenges.

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Nell Minow

Nell Minow is assistant editor at rogerebert.com. She reviews each week’s releases on radio stations across the country and her reviews and interviews are also found at moviemom.com, thecredits.org, and medium.com. She is the author of several books, including The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.