COMMENTARY: Roger Ebert Defended Asian American Cinema

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 By SUZANNE JOE KAI

Roger Ebert lost his battle with cancer today. He will be greatly missed. Most famous for his film criticism, he was the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Since 1967, and up to just a few days ago he wrote a column for The Chicago Sun-Times.

Roger Ebert

He authored 20 books, and co-hosted several long-running syndicated television shows, including “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies.”

I will remember Roger Ebert not only for his reviews and commentary, but also for his advocacy of Asian American cinema.

I thank Roger Ebert for his outspoken support and standing up (literally) for a film called “Better Luck Tomorrow.”

When Ebert stood on his theater seat and yelled back at an audience member who was chastising the film’s director, Justin Lin, and his cast on stage for making an “empty and amoral” film, it was a watershed moment in Asian American cinema.

Mind you, this was in 2002 at the third screening of Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” at the Sundance Film Festival, where a lot is at stake. Filmmakers are hoping that distribution deals are made.

A video posted on YouTube captured the moment. The audience member said, “You know how to make a movie. But why, with the talent up there … make a film as so empty and amoral for Asian Americans and Americans?”

Then Roger Ebert gets up and says, “What I find very condescending and disturbing about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?!’” (applause from the crowd)

Then Ebert continues, “Yes, film has the right to be about these people and Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to represent their people.”

And as America’s influential dean of film critics sat back down in his seat, he had just put “Better Luck Tomorrow” on the map.

On Feb. 2, 2010, “Better Luck Tomorrow” star Roger Fan reflected about his gratitude to Roger Ebert in a blog titled “Roger Ebert, our uncle from another mother”:

“Little did I know that Uncle Ebert would play such an important role in my (our) life so many years later at the Sundance Film Festival. Were it not for Uncle Ebert hoisting his large frame atop a theater seat to loudly exclaim his opinions on the double standard imposed upon ‘ethnic’ cinema and race expectations sprouting from it, I wonder if I’d even be working in Hollywood today. I wonder if BLT would have had enough juice to stand above the larger, more well-funded, highly star-studded competition films. We owe Roger Ebert a lot. Perhaps more than he’ll ever know. We are entwined in so many unexpected ways…”

Roger Fan is not alone in his gratitude to Roger Ebert. Ebert’s actions in support of that film has meant a lot to many of us who would like to see more Asian Americans in filmmaking in front of and behind the camera, as well as more Asian American films to reach wider audiences.

I happen to live and work with many people who are film enthusiasts. So much so that back in 2002-2003, when Justin Lin put the word out to enlist ground support to help encourage people to go out and buy a ticket to see his movie, we were among his hundreds of unknown, unnamed volunteers. We were on a mission. We also knew that if his movie flopped at the box office, it could be a setback for Asian American cinema.

At that time, I was helping an Internet start-up that had developed a powerful hands-off computerized movie review rating system that aggregated the reviews of independent movie critics. The website, called RottenTomatoes.com, was created by Senh Duong with his team and founding partners Patrick Lee and Stephen Wang. Back then, this website (AsianConnections.com) was housed and managed on RT’s servers so I could help as one of RottenTomatoes’ ad directors and Hollywood red carpet movie premiere video producers.

Since it was pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter days, many of us volunteered to do an old-school street team effort to get the word out. We bought tickets, posted stories online, and put up flyers and posters. Our writer/editor Lia Chang in New York did an interview with Justin Lin.

On Friday, April 11, 2003, just as “Better Luck Tomorrow” was about to be released for its opening weekend in movie theaters, Roger Ebert posted his review. He wrote that “Better Luck Tomorrow” was a “brilliantly made film.” With Roger Ebert further solidifying his praise for the film, as well as the positive reviews from other movie critics, it was a proud day for Asian American cinema.

With the passing of Roger Ebert, we’ve lost a champion. He has been courageously fighting cancer, and then he left us in style. He did what he loved to do all the way up to three days ago — reviewing movies and writing about them for his millions of fans. April 3 was his 46th year as a film critic at The Chicago Sun-Times.

As The New York Times’ Douglas Martin writes: “Mr. Ebert — who said he saw 500 films a year and reviewed half of them — was once asked what movie he thought was shown over and over again in heaven, and what snack would be free of charge and calories there. “‘Citizen Kane’ and vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream,” he answered.

Originally posted April 5 on Asianconnections.com. Distributed by New America Media. Suzanne Joe Kai is CEO and executive producer of STUDIOLA.TV and CEO of CSI International. She was an on-camera TV news reporter and program host for KRON-TV (San Francisco’s former NBC affiliate), and also worked at KCBS Newsradio (San Francisco), KTVU-TV (Bay Area’s Fox affiliate), KGO-TV (San Francisco’s ABC affiliate) and KGUN-TV (ABC affiliate in Tucson, Ariz.). She is directing a documentary in development, “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres,” and is a board member of the Asian American Journalists Association, Los Angeles Chapter

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