Roger Ebert and Me: In Loving Memory

I learned that Roger had passed in an email from my mother, read to me by Annabel while on one of our frequent road trips. It took a long while to sink in. It happens from time to time that there are erroneous reports. But when I read the blog post by his lovely wife, Chaz, I knew it was true:

"I am devastated by the loss of my love, Roger -- my husband, my friend, my confidante and oh-so-brilliant partner of over 20 years. He fought a courageous fight. I've lost the love of my life and the world has lost a visionary and a creative and generous spirit who touched so many people all over the world. We had a lovely, lovely life together, more beautiful and epic than a movie. It had its highs and the lows, but was always experienced with good humor, grace and a deep abiding love for each other.

"Roger was a beloved husband, stepfather to Sonia and Jay, and grandfather to Raven, Emil, Mark and Joseph. Just yesterday he was saying how his grandchildren were "the best things in my life." He was happy and radiating satisfaction over the outpouring of responses to his blog about his 46th year as a film critic. But he was also getting tired of his fight with cancer, and said if this takes him, he has lived a great and full life.

"We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition."

We are touched by all the kindness and the outpouring of love we've received. And I want to echo what Roger said in his last blog, thank you for going on this journey with us."

As Roger mentions in the video above, I first met him at the Hawai'i International Film Festival in 2002. My first feature, Charlotte Sometimes, included cast and crew with Hawai'i roots (I went to high school and middle school there), so it was a special occasion even before we encountered Roger at a luncheon that kicked off the festival. We asked him if he would be kind enough to attend one of our screenings. He said he would need to check his schedule.

Roger-Ebert-vertical-sm.jpgWe ran into him again that evening at the opening night party. He said he had checked his schedule and that he would be attending the first of our 3 screenings. We let out a loud cheer and he immediately ducked his head below his shoulders. "Please, not so loud," he said. "There are a dozen other filmmakers here who asked me the same question."

We had a feeling that Roger liked the film based on the questions he asked during the Q and A. The audience was filled with friends and calabash family, and it was announced that we were all going out to eat afterwards. To our delight, Roger and Chaz joined us. This was the first time that I got to know Chaz. What a glowing, loving, charming person she is and was. Years later, Chaz and I would become quite close as Roger's health deteriorated, as we worried and fretted together in hospitals or at their Chicago home. But these were the wondrous years, times she and I both long for now. Let me stay with them a little longer.

At the dinner following the screening, it was a shock to see my high school friends pinging Roger with questions about reviews he'd written, his opinion of their favorite movies, recent movies, etc. We knew that in the morning, it was likely a review of Charlotte Sometimes would be published in the Chicago Sun Times. This was the early days of the Internet. In order to read the review, we had to find a Kinkos, and pay by the hour to go online. Since we were in Hawai'i, it wasn't hard to stay up. The review appeared at about 1 am. I knew that some good things would happen as a result of meeting Roger. I didn't know that the best of them would have little to do with film.

The video above was shot at Roger's film festival in March of 2003, about 4 months later. EbertFest, known then as "The Overlooked Film Festival," is an annual pilgrimage for film lovers around the nation and around the world. We really had no idea what an amazing community we'd been invited to join. Somewhere, I have photos from the festival with Roger and Chaz. When I find them I will post them. Suddenly, images from the past are a treasure. You know how it is.


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Connecting Selma and Newtown

Selma, Alabama is, triumphantly, associated with voting rights. Newtown, Connecticut is, tragically, associated with gun violence. Tonight we connect the issues thanks to our special guests, Chellette and Darren, on The Middle Ground.


The Middle Ground
Tuesdays at 8 pm ET
CLICK HERE for archived recording

From the Selma, AL, Chellette Henderson is a retired aerospace purchasing agent who returned to her childhood home after her husband and her mother passed away. Having participated in the historic voting rights marches in Selma 48 years ago, she is getting reacquainted with Alabama after raising a family, making a career, and helping to establish MLK Day, in Mesa, Arizona. 

From Newtown, CT, Darren Wagner will make his second appearance on The Middle Ground, and his first since he launched the Newton Action Alliance. He is a former Deputy Sheriff who has become a leading voice on the issue of gun violence after he and his family were shaken by the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.

CLICK HERE to listen to archived recording of Darren and Chellette interviewed via Coffee Party Radio by filmmaker Eric Byler.

More about our visit to Chellette's family farm:

Has the South Changed? Justice Roberts made this claim while implying the Supreme Court wants to undermine the Voting Rights Act. In this video, Annabel Park asks Chellette Henderson of Selma, Alabama if Roberts has a point.

Annabel Park and I were invited by Chellette Henderson to stay on her historic family farm just south of Selma, AL. We were treated to an old fashioned country breakfast, a tour of the property, and a days worth of captivating and illuminating conversation.

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V O T I N G R I G H T S in 2013 — Gov. McDonnell Caves In to Partisans

gov-bob-mcdonnell.jpgI recently wrote that "Rebranding the Republican party" and voter suppression are incompatible. Last year, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) seemed to agree. But this week he changed his mind about that to the surprise of many, including me.

In 2012, McDonnell was hounded by members of his party to sign a bill restricting the right to vote in a crucial election year. He did, but he also issued an executive order to protect citizens' right to vote by allowing other forms of identification, such as a utility bill, to be accepted. An estimated 870,000 Virginians do not have, and may not be able to afford the time and expense to acquire, a government-issued ID. McDonnell also ordered voter registration cards, which were also accepted at polling places in 2012, sent to every registered voter.

Republican lawmakers cried foul, and when the 2012 election produced zero cases of voter impersonation (success), but, a Barack Obama victory in the commonwealth (failure?), they passed a new bill to do away with the Governor's voter-protection measures.

Many expected McDonnell to veto the bill in order to uphold his authority and his legacy as governor, and, to position himself as a mainstream candidate, viable for higher office. Unfortunately, McDonnell has backed down, and on the last day he could have done so, signed the more restrictive voter ID bill into law.

In the face of a very expensive media campaign about voter fraud — which aired mostly on Fox News and other Republican media outlets starting in 2009 — majorities of polling respondents say they support ID requirements to protect the integrity of our elections. But then we have the facts to deal with. For instance, the fact that there have been almost no documented cases of voter impersonation fraud, which is the only kind of fraud that voter ID laws could address. You are more likely to be struck by lightning than be a victim of voter-impersonation fraud. Meanwhile, the documented cases of actual voter fraud occur with absentee ballots, or in voter registration fraud such this case in Virginia in 2012. But bills that addressed real and actual problems with Virginia elections — such as long lines at the polls (see below) — could not make it through committees in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Reagan George, a Tea Party Republican and active proponent of voter ID laws in Virginia, acknowledged when we interviewed him that no actual cases of voter impersonation have been documented in Virginia. (If lawmakers asked for $2,000,000 of taxpayer money to address a problem, wouldn't you want to see at least one documented case of that problem before that money was spent? And that's just the price tag for the 2012 version of this law). But Mr. George said that voter-impersonation fraud might occur if we don't pass laws to prevent it: "My bank has never been robbed... does that mean the bank shouldn't have a vault?"

But that is assuming that stopping voter impersonation is the real intention. A more cynical intention might have to do with the fact that hundreds of thousands of American citizens and legal voters in Virginia, and millions across the United States, will have their voting rights systematically abridged by such restrictions, and, they are just the types of voters that Republicans would prefer to see discouraged enough that they might stay home. Consider this video about Augustine Carter, an 85-year-old woman who went through hell and high water in order to get a photo ID despite the fact that she had been voting in the United States for 60 years. 

If the estimate of 870,000 Virginians lacking government-issued IDs is accurate, I doubt that many of them possess the determination that this woman did, hiring a genealogist and pulling census records from 1940 to prove her citizenship. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, lawmakers expect less than 5,000 people to obtain voter ID's in response to this law. Their expectation is my fear. Whatever the number is, most of these people will simply be removed from our democracy. Perhaps Ms. Carter's story will inspire a higher percentage of them to reacquire their right to vote. But if even one American citizen is disenfranchised to suit the electoral goals of a major political party, that is one citizen too many.
Story of America's interest in voting rights increased when we witnessed and filmed the five-hour ordeal voters in Prince William County had to endure — as it happened, in the most heavily African American precinct in the most diverse district of one of Virginia's most diverse counties.
It's a shame that legislators in Virginia are so focused on fixing the non-existent, but thoroughly advertised "problem" of voter fraud, but not preventing real and actual flaws in Virginia elections, like long lines at the polls. On the one hand, their action abridges the People's right to vote. On the other hand, their inaction abridges the People's right to vote. And in both cases, it's the same people who suffer, the same people who have always suffered when political outcome, not democratic principles, govern our approach to voting rights.
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Writing from Selma, Alabama


Eric and I have been filming in Selma, Alabama documenting the Bridge Crossing Jubilee held every year to commemorate the 1965 march for voting rights across Edmund Pettus Bridge and the violent treatment of the marchers by the police, referred to as Bloody Sunday.

This year is especially meaningful because the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is being challenged before the US Supreme Court. In Shelby County v. Holder, an Alabama county just north of Selma is challenging a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5, which requires 9 southern states and other districts with a history of voter suppression to get a pre-clearance from the Department of Justice for any changes in the voting laws.

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NEW VIDEO: Tea Party Values, the Civil War and Race in Raleigh, NC

NOTE: Listen to Annabel Park & Eric Byler talk about this video on Coffee Party Radio

Annabel Park recently spoke to Diane Rufino, leader of the Eastern North Carolina Tea Party, at the "Honor the Oath" rally at the State Capitol in Raleigh.

Diane had drawn applause during her speech when she praised North Carolina's role during the Civil War, yet, she said that Rev. Dr. William Barber is wrong to remind us of historic struggles for racial equality in order to counter the TEA Party, and address modern day injustices. "Time to move on," she said.

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