film · friendship · teaching

ebertfest high



I returned to Alabama last night with an Ebertfest high.

Just what the doctor ordered – literally – after very stressful recent weeks. Five days of films and panels and warm conversations with old and new friends.

I first met Mr. Ebert in 2002 when I was a volunteer for the Sundance Film Festival. At the time, I was teaching 9th and 10th grade at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan after having spent more than a decade working as a newspaper journalist and later, a freelancer.

The towers had just fallen.

It was there I’d discovered Deborah Gray White’s now classic study on antebellum black women in the “plantation South” and my first research project that was initially pursued via dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I eventually earned a doctoral degree in History from the University of Illinois in the very area in which Ebertfest is held – Champaign-Urbana!


Above is a photo of me and Marsha Woodbury, a professor in the Computer Science Department at my now-alma mater.

I can still remember sitting at her breakfast table, wondering if I could earn a PhD someday.

I remember, too, the lovely yellow Volkswagen bug she let me drive during my first visit to Champaign-Urbana. I’d later meet other friends in the area.

I loved learning about new technology in early cinema via French inventors. This was the topic of one of the panels at this year’s Ebertfest.

Aside from my amazing classmates and professors, among the others I met in this area were Georgeann and Vernon Burton, Betsy Hendrick, Kim Robeson, Cara Day and Charles Day. Another dear friend was a constant presence, too, before her passing.

Party time in the President’s House on campus. The last time I was there was the morning I graduated from Illinois with my PhD!

I met more on this recent visit. I was reminded again of how pretensions are rarely found in this setting. As a former reporter, I have met many celebrities. I married into a family with a musician of note, meeting many more along the way. Authentic experiences no matter fame matter to me. I had such experiences in my years of volunteering at Sundance and certainly had them at Ebertfest.

Ebertfest is also wonderful because I learn about overlooked films or films worth revisiting again for any number of reasons. I use them in the classroom. Among those are “Grand Canyon” and “Metropolis.”

Yesterday, I saw “Rumble,” a documentary about the influence of indigenous music on the blues, rock and roll and other musical genres. I showed the trailer to my “American Civilization to 1865” class today as I reviewed key questions for the semester for the upcoming final.

One of those questions concerns who Native Americans are really and the impact of the collision of cultures owing to the arrival of Europeans and Africans. “Rumble” illustrates the modernity of indigenous people no matter the stereotypes, but also the beauty in some collisions despite the the sad history we know all too well.

I share all of what I have shared via a blog that is written for others, but also for myself.

As I age, I want to remember the high moments that make life so very much worth living.

Ebertfest is filled with such moments. It is a space to remember tolerance across the lines that divide us and the beauty of empathy.

Other highlights at this year’s festival included watching “Belle” by the amazing Amma Asante, “13th” by the incredible Ava Duvernay.

I loved seeing again the too often unsung black mother of modern cinema Julie Dash’s moving “Daughters of the Dust,” which I shall share with my grad students this Thursday as we turn to a likely topic: departure.

What does saying good-bye look like for the postwar white suburbanite unhappy with powerbrokers who look like them (and the black folks moving in) per Amanda Seligman?

The Nigerian who has had enough of “Americanah“?

The first generation of free people leaving a Gullah island for the mainland? How do we find meaning in space when it comes to the idea of what it means to be modern? Along with paying attention to who gets to move and why and where they go, how much do capitalist forces play a role?

Does it signify greatly or hardly for the mobile no matter the color of their skin? Can movement sometimes be tied to the mere need to survive so much? And then, when and where do we find value in stillness, an idea I explored in that first grad program at UNCG?

The sidewalk in front of the Virginia Theatre where Ebertfest celebrates its 20th year.

But back to Ebertfest, I enjoyed, too, “American Splendor” (Shout-out again, to, Shari Springer Berman, one of the filmmakers I met while drinking tea at the hotel bar) and “The Big Labowski.” Fun times all around.

Pura Fé ‘s powerful singing after the showing of “Rumble.”

And did I tell you that this has been the best spring I have ever seen in Tuscaloosa? The roses outside floor me!


Finally, I am grateful, too, for the skills of the United Airline pilots who got us from O’hare to Birmingham’s airport last night. We take so much for granted when these individuals fly through the bad weather that is typical of changing seasons. Call me corny, but I’m a minister’s daughter so it doesn’t matter when I say we are so very blessed.

Postscript: Just learned from a friend in Greensboro, NC, about the need for tarp in that city following recent tornado in a community that could least afford to endure such damage. Sending proceeds from fish leather jewelry I recently made to that cause. If there’s interest in helping, please reach out in this way.

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