Film critic Roger Ebert passed away earlier today after a long battle with cancer. At the time of his death, he could no longer eat or speak nor do these two common things we take for granted for several years. Cancer ravaged his body. His spirit continued to smile, move on, and led him to do the things which he held most dear - write, comment, and watch movies.
Probably for the better part of 40 years, Roger Ebert was a part of my life. He was the most influential film critic of his generation though he would probably smirk at that. When a new movie came out, everyone quickly ran to Roger Ebert in print and on TV to see what he thought of a movie. And up until his death in 1999, everyone went to Ebert and his longtime partner in film criticism crime Gene Siskel who passed away that year also from cancer, to see if they gave a movie thumbs up or thumbs down. Roger Ebert took intellectual film criticism and gave it accessibility to the masses. Rather than the snobbish, elitist movie reviews that were common in the 50's and 60's, Ebert looked at films from a common place perspective. His movie reviews were easy to read. His TV reviews were succinct and to the point. He loved movies. He praised them when they were good and railed against the ones that were bad. You could agree or disagree with Ebert but you just want to hear what he had to say.
Which brings me Walt Disney's Song of the South from 1946 long considered a Disney classic but withheld from distribution in the United States for decades because of it's racial undertones. Certainly Walt Disney didn't have any racial prejudices when he produced and released the film but the times we live in now define our sensibilities. Today, the film is considered 'politically incorrect' as the buzz words go in the U.S. Though filled with love and warmth from Uncle Remus and his characters, the film set in the post Civil War era still exudes a sometimes painful separation of black and white races.
Disney refuses to release the movie in the U.S. on blu-ray or any other home media.It's been that way for years though the film is available in other parts of the world (and available if you desire to get a copy). Disney fans and film historians constantly debate whether the film should be released. As Disney CEO Bob Iger has said many times that though releasing the film would bring Disney some financial gain, sometimes you don't do things because you think it is the right thing to do.
And that's the main problem with releasing Song of the South. It is constantly debated by Disney fans (like anyone who has every been on Splash Mountain or sang along with Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah") and film historians. It's debated by adults. But leave it Roger Ebert to take a different, simple, eloquent position. Though Ebert hated film censorship of any kind, he believed Song of the South should be best left discussed in serious context with film schools. He looked at the film from the eyes of a child - "Any Disney film immediately becomes part of the consciousness of almost every child in America, and I would not want to be a black child going to school in the weeks following the release of Song of the South was first seen by my classmates" Ebert wrote. It should be mentioned while Roger Ebert had no children, he was married to an woman of African-American descent for many years.
I admired Roger Ebert, his writing and his ability to take a subject matter such as film criticism and make it entertaining on TV. I subscribe to Twitter feeds from actors Albert Brooks and Steve Martin. Today they remembered the fondness for having known Roger Ebert though he occasionally ripped them in his commentaries for their performances. They both said he was a very nice and kind man and they would miss him greatly.