Ebert attended the screening at Sundance that year for “Better Luck Tomorrow,” the landmark Asian American film that turbocharged the careers of, among others, director Justin Lin and actors such as John Cho and Sung Kang. The dark film turned the “Model Minority” Asian stereotype on its head, by following a group of Southern California Asian American high school students who are not model citizens.
After the screening, a white man in the audience yelled at Lin and some of the stars on stage at how the film was “empty and amoral for Asian Americans.” Ebert jumped up and bellowed (to great applause from the rest of the audience), “What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement, is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people. … Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be!'”
Seeing the clip reminds me how Ebert’s defense of the film shot through the Asian American community like a lightning bolt. I know there’s some frustration in people of color in fiction and especially in Hollywood always being rescued by white people, but having a white ally with the voice and clout of Roger Ebert was an empowering reality. I like to think this exchange led to a burst of Asian American creativity in the arts and pop culture.
He wasn’t the most intellectual of critics, but he was populist and passionate, a champion of all that he approved and a formidable challenger to awful movies (and dumb people). He was hands-down the most famous and powerful movie critic in the history of movies.
Ebert died yesterday of cancer after a fabled career and more than a decade of amazing productivity in the face of debilitating illness.
Among his many fans who’ll mourn, count me and other Asian Americans.