“He didn’t just dominate his profession, he defined it,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a brief eulogy to hundreds of mourners who gathered at Holy Name Cathedral just blocks from where Ebert spent more than 40 years as the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert died Thursday at the age of 70 after a yearslong battle with cancer.
It was Ebert who told readers which films to see and needed to see and which ones they should stay away from, Emanuel said, remembering the influence Ebert had on movie goers through his newspaper reviews and the immensely popular television show he hosted with fellow critic Gene Siskel during which they would issue thumbs-up or thumbs-down assessments.
“Roger spent a lot of time sitting through bad movies so we didn’t have to,” joked the mayor.
In a 90-minute funeral Mass, speakers took turns talking about how Ebert spent his career communicating his ideas about movies, social issues, the newspaper business and finally the health problems that left him unable to speak.
“He realized that connecting to people was the main reason we’re all here and that’s what his life was all about,” said Sonia Evans, his stepdaughter, her voice choking with emotion.
That realization, she and other speakers said, helped explain Ebert’s fascination with outlets such as Twitter and his blog that he took to just two days before he died to tell readers he was taking a “leave of presence.”
“Roger was 24-7 before anybody thought of that term,” said John Barron, Ebert’s former boss at the Sun-Times, who said Ebert was among the first to recognize the changing media landscape as well as the first in the office to use a computer or send emails.
Ebert was also a champion for the little guy, as over the years he weighed more and more on social issues and other topics that had nothing to do with film.
Gov. Pat Quinn spoke as much, if not more, about Ebert’s “passion for social justice” and the fact that he was a “union man,” as he did about Ebert as a film critic.
Ebert’s widow, Chaz, who received a standing ovation as she made her way to the lectern to speak, expanded on that devotion.
“It didn’t matter to him your race, creed, color,” she said. “He had a big enough heart to accept and love all.”
That was the message of Jonathan Jackson, who, after relating comments from his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, told the crowded church why Ebert’s early support for the films of Spike Lee and other black filmmakers was so important.
“He respected what we had to say about ourselves,” said Jackson, who pointed to Ebert’s glowing review of Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ in the late 1980s. “It was not his story but he understood the value of an important film was authenticity and not the fact that it depicted your interests.”
As when other Chicago icons such as former Cubs great Ron Santo died, fans of Ebert flocked to the church to pay tribute to someone they saw as one of their own: a Chicago guy. Fans said they liked it that Ebert never left the city for Los Angeles or New York, and that he remained a newspaper writer until the end. Some clapped when Barron ended his remarks with a story about how Ebert kept his word to stay at the paper.
And they liked it that he didn’t hide after surgeons had to remove portions of his jaw.
“He let himself be the face of cancer and that illness,” said Peggy Callahan, a 67-year-old retired teacher. “He did that and he kept doing that.”