5 Questions with Chaz Ebert

Chaz Ebert’s love for movies began long before she met her husband Roger Ebert, who just happened to be the number one film critic in the world. Since his death in 2013, she has continued her family’s passion for cinema in a big way.

She is the Vice President of Ebertfest, one of the leading film festivals in America that takes place this week on the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign (Roger’s alma mater). Chaz is also the President of Ebert Productions and the Executive Producer of “Ebert Presents: At the Movies.”

She’s a busy lady who is firmly committed to preserving her husband legacy. We recently sat down with the tireless cinephile to ask her five questions, including about her work at The Ebert Company and other big plans that include bringing the Emmett Till Story based on the book “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America,” to the big screen. The book, co-written by Till’s mother, the late Mamie Till-Mobley, is the story of an innocent fourteen-year-old African-American boy whose murder help spark The Civil Rights Movement. What is your role at The Ebert Company?

CHAZ EBERT: I am the CEO which serves as a sort of holding company for the enterprises. We publish the movie review website, license intellectual property relating to Roger’s writings or the Two Thumbs Up trademark, oversee the publication of Roger’s books and one that I am writing, produce TV shows, web content and movies, and manage speaking dates for me and others associated with the company. I also direct our philanthropic efforts through the Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation. Can you give us an update on the Emmett Till project?

CE: The project is coming right along. There is a lot of interest in it because it is a seminal event in the history of the civil rights movement, but unfortunately also because of the similar events that still occur in the present day. What people may not know about is the transformational role Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, had in changing the way these things were handled. She was a bright light in this world. We hope to make additional announcements about the project soon. What can we expect from Eberfest this year in terms of diverse projects?

CE: I am thrilled to present the 18th edition of Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois at the Virginia Theater. Our slate of movies is as robust as ever. And I am particularly thrilled to introduce more diversity in our programming with Kasi Lemmons bringing “Eve’s Bayou,” and Renee Baker bringing the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project to the festivities Were you surprised to see your life with Roger made into a play by the Black Ensemble Theater last year?

CE: I think the word is more like shocked. Shocked and humbled. I knew that Jackie Taylor, the founder of the Black Ensemble Theater wanted to do something in honor of Roger after his death. When she came up with the idea of doing a play about our love story I was speechless. How do you so such a thing? But she had an idea, and she is so creative that I trusted her, and I am glad I did. I loved the play. Jackie was wise about casting and I have to say that Rashada Dawan made a better Chaz than I am. She is so talented. It was eerie but poignant to see her re-enacting my first night as a widow. I both laughed and cried each time I saw Kevin Pollack as Roger. First, during the scenes when we were falling in love and by the time he sings the song, “I’m Ready to Go, Ready to Fly Away,” I just lose it. One night three different people swore they saw Roger sitting in the theater during the play, and they all said they saw him in the same chair! Share with us your top three goals for the coming year…

CE: I don’t know whether these are my top 3 but they are certainly three big goals.  One: To do everything I can to introduce feelings of kindness, empathy and compassion into the daily discourse. If I had a magic wand I would want to start with the children in their homes, to create an environment where they could feel secure and loved. Two: To continue the mentoring programs for the Ebert Fellows in high school and college, and help to expand their opportunities whenever we can. Three: To finish writing my book.

Check out the full slate for the Ebertfest, including a panel led by Gil Robertson and Shawn Edewards of the African American Film Critics Association, right HERE.

Gil Robertson IV is an award-winning journalist, bestselling author and president of the African-American Film Critics Association. and the AAFCA are partnering to push the conversation for film and television diversity forward.