“Life Itself” first appeared in 2011 as a rich memoir by Roger Ebert. Now, thanks to “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James, it is a documentary of the highest caliber.
One of its revelations is the late-life marriage between Ebert and Chicago attorney Chaz Hammelsmith. Interracial love stories may not be in vogue in Hollywood, but this documentary lets viewers witness an exemplary match. So does a 3,000-word essay, “Roger loves Chaz,” that Ebert published on his 20th anniversary.
In the documentary, the legendary film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times comes across as a consummate Midwesterner – unpretentious, but also funny, gifted and complex.
Five months before his death in April 2013, Roger and Chaz gave James permission to film Ebert’s “third act.” It was a marvelous, harrowing decision in which the three collaborators do not shrink from the unlovely parts. James also makes shrewd use of the frenemy chemistry between Ebert and Gene Siskel, a rival movie critic at the Chicago Tribune. Improbably, the pair became partners on the wildly successful and culturally powerful PBS show, “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.” Their sparring mimicked that of siblings and their yoked fortunes – burnished over the years — created a complicated brotherhood.
The bond between Chaz and Ebert came later – the two met after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Chicago in 1989. Here is how Ebert begins “Roger loves Chaz”:
How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? 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 . . . She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.
In the documentary, Chaz admits to some hesitation in marrying a white man, and remembers that she called out her new husband on his ginger observation that some of his relatives might be hesitant about his marrying a non-Catholic. “Because I’m not Catholic or because I’m black?” she asked. Ebert agreed both elements were at play.
For his part, Ebert said he felt scads of acceptance and love from Chaz’ children and grandchildren and her large West Chicago family. Some of the most moving footage in the documentary shows family vacation videos in which Ebert, an only child, looks like a man awash in an experience he had craved all his life.
As a film critic, Ebert paid attention to race. Director Ava DuVernay tells James that she was nervous when Ebert reviewed her movie “I Will Follow” about a niece grieving her aunt. Still, DuVernay remembered a chance girlhood encounter at the Oscars when she met a gracious Ebert. And, she said, “Everybody knows he was married to a sister.” That intimacy gave DuVernay hope that Ebert would understand a film about two black women better than most white men. He gave it three and a half stars.
In 2012, Ebert famously responded to a white heckler at Sundance after a screening of Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” about Asian American teenagers. Ebert told the heckler that he wouldn’t be putting such race-based questions to a white director.
“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” Ebert says as the documentary begins, before his voice is lost to cancer. “It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”