A LOOK BACK
April 4th, 2013, by Staff

With his passion for the movies and his thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluations, Roger Ebert became a household name. He penned thousands of film reviews—his Chicago Sun-Times pieces were syndicated in more than 200 papers around the world—and his show was for a time the top-rated weekly syndicated half-hour on TV. The first film critic to receive a Pulitzer, he quit an English doctoral program to pursue a career as a reviewer. He wrote several screenplays and more than 20 books, including his memoir, Life Itself. In 1999, Ebert launched the annual Overlooked Film Festival showcasing forgotten/ignored movies and genres.

In June 2005, Ebert received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, during his trip, paid us a visit. In the transcript below of our chat, we recall his reflections on the influence and success of his work.


Mr. Ebert’s official site

‘Roger Ebert career highlights, on page and screen’


Tavis:
I am pleased to welcome Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert to this program. The popular and influential movie reviewer has been co-hosting his own popular TV series since the mid-seventies, first with the late Gene Siskel, and now with Richard Roeper. He’s here in L.A. this week to receive his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His most recent book is called ‘The Great Movies, Volume II,’ which is in stores everywhere. First of all, Mr. Ebert, an honor to meet you. Secondly, glad to have you on the program. And thirdly, congratulations on the star.

Roger Ebert: Thank you. Thank you. I enjoy your program. I enjoy your program. There needs to be more programs like yours on the air.

Tavis: That’s awfully kind. I’m not gonna say there should be more film critics because then you’d have more competition.

Ebert: The more the merrier. ‘Cause actually, a lot of the entertainment news is not film criticism. It’s just publicity and, you know, who got divorced, who’s in rehab.

Tavis: Which raises the fascinating question–I’ve got a lot more competition than you have. There are talk shows everywhere.

Ebert: Yeah, I know.

Tavis: But what is, in fact, the enduring something that’s allowed you to stay around all this time?

Ebert: You know, I think the thing that works on our show is that we review movies, and that’s what we do. We don’t interview stars. We don’t have gossip. We don’t show the new trailer of the movie that’s opening next week. We just say here’s a new movie, and we review it, and we get off the beaten path–not just the big movies, like ‘Batman Begins,’ but also little movies like ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know.’ Smaller films that people might not hear about. ‘The March of the Penguins,’ ‘The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.’ And people, now that they’re using their DVD machines, are more curious about reaching out to some of these other films. They’re hungry for new ideas for what to rent and what to look at.

Tavis: I want to talk about the impact of the DVD in just a second. Before I do that, though, I don’t want to move so fast past this star. That’s such a huge honor to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Ebert: I’m amazed.

Tavis: What did you make of this when you heard that you’re gonna get a star?

Ebert: I was astonished. And people think I got it for being a film critic. Actually, I got it for being on television for 30 years. And not very many people have been in the same format for that long. And certainly I hope that Gene Siskel gets a posthumous star one of these years because we had a great run together, and now Richard Roeper is a great partner. But I’ve been on TV for 30 years, so that’s why they gave me the star.

Tavis: How was that–so if I last 30 years, does that mean I automatically get a star?

Ebert: I should think so. You probably deserve one right now.

Tavis: Yeah, I doubt that. I doubt that very seriously. How did you navigate that–what I assume, at least, was a difficult transition?

Ebert: It was. We did the show twice with me by myself, and that did not work. Did not work because the whole thing about the show is give and take. It would be like you doing an interview with an empty chair. Can’t be done.

Tavis: Well, I talk to myself all the time, but that’s not at issue.

Ebert: On the other hand, how good are your answers?

Tavis: Exactly. And the ratings aren’t so good, but that’s another issue.

Ebert: So what we did, we had about 35 guest hosts–some of them more than once–would come in and do the show. Some great people. And eventually the one that we settled on was Richard Roeper, who worked for my paper, for the Chicago Sun-Times. So my wife said, ‘You ought to have Roeper on.’ I said, ‘I can’t have him. He works for the Sun-Times.’ and she said, ‘What difference does that make?’ And she was right because Roeper has turned out to be a terrific co-host, and we get along well, and we talk well, and he knows a lot about movies.

Tavis: Two questions relative to that specifically. How did you become such–I mean, we all love good movies, but how did you become such a lover of film, number one? And how did you– I know a lot of kids watching want to know this–somebody asked me this question the other day. I get asked it all the time. I got asked the other day. How did you, Tavis–how did you end up with a talk show? How did you end up being such a lover of movies, and how did you end up becoming the quintessential movie critic?

Ebert: Well, lover of movies… My hometown, Champaign-Urbana, they had a big fight over who was gonna get the TV license. And so even though I’m not that old, I grew up in a childhood that did not have television. And we went downtown to the Princess Theater and the other theaters in town; saw the double features. I grew up on movies. I love them. Had an aunt who took me to all the movies, too. And so I grew up loving movies, and at the University of Illinois, I went to the film society. I went to the local art theater. It just became part of my life. And as to how I became a film critic, people ask you a career question expecting to find out how they’re going to get to do it…

Tavis: Exactly.

Ebert: And what they find out is how you did it.

Tavis: Exactly.

Ebert: And that doesn’t help them. How did I get to be a film critic? I was a feature writer at the Chicago Sun-Times while I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago. The film critic retired, and they gave me the job. So I really don’t have any idea how, you know. And it was good luck.

Tavis: Yeah. I was ready for a great story, and it’s just ‘The guy retired. They gave me the job.’

Ebert: I had written about movies before for the Sun-Times and elsewhere, but I was not aiming at that job, and it just fell out of the sky, into my hands.

Tavis: Is it fair that you get a chance to do this? In other words, is it fair that a movie comes out, and because Roger Ebert says it stinks, thumbs down, people who respect your opinion either don’t give the movie a chance–they don’t go check–is that fair? Is that right?

Ebert: Actually, I wish that film critics in general had more influence, because if you really look at what drives the box office, it’s advertising more than anything else. Trailers, ads on TV. And when my thumb is up or down, that means very little as opposed to a $30 million advertising campaign. And what I’m trying to do, basically, is not tell people what they should do. The good critic never says what you would like or wouldn’t like because I don’t know what you would like. I just say what I like and why. I try to say why in such a way that you can make up your own mind.

There was an executive once who I said, ‘How come you give us these ‘Friday the 13th’ clips to review on the show when you know we’re gonna hate all of those movies?’ He says, ‘You show a clip from ‘Friday the 13th’ on your show, and you two guys say it stinks, and a lot of people at home will see the clip and say, oh, great, another ‘Friday the 13th’ movie.’ Of course, they expect us to say it stinks, but it still sells tickets.

Tavis: Yeah.

Ebert: So in a way it’s news. It’s just news.

Tavis: That’s a fascinating anecdote ’cause I was just about to ask you how you interpret–and you don’t do it for this particular reason, but when Roger Ebert does give the thumbs up, everybody takes that and runs it in their ads in the newspaper. So when I’m going through the newspaper looking for what I want to see, I always look to see what Ebert and Roeper gave it, or Ebert and Siskel, back in the day. Because you guys are the two big willies, I always look, just out of curiosity, to see what they said.

Ebert: The two big…

Tavis: Two big willies. That’s Ebonics. Don’t worry about it.

Ebert: I think I…

Tavis: South side of Chicago, they’ll clue you in.

Ebert: I think it translates pretty well. I like it a lot.

Tavis: You guys are the two big willies, so I’m, like, ‘What did they say about this?’ but it occurred to me one day, when you guys do give thumbs up, they jump on that, and they use that as a part of their sales pitch.

Ebert: The advantage to that is–’cause I was a film critic long before I was on television.

Tavis: Right.

Ebert: You know, they have a way of selecting words–lifting words out of a review.

Tavis: I’ve noticed that. Is that what that dot-dot-dot is?

Ebert: You could say ‘It’s astonishingly bad,’ and it comes out ‘Astonishing.’

Tavis: Yeah.

Ebert: At least if we give it 2 thumbs up, or one of us gives it thumbs up, it can’t be misquoted.

Tavis: Right.

Ebert: So at least you know, yes, Ebert liked it, or Ebert and Roeper liked it. So at least it’s not going to be misinterpreted.

Tavis: All right. DVD, you mentioned earlier. The box office for Hollywood is in a slump.

Ebert: It is.

Tavis: Some would attribute that to the advent of the DVD. Not just the advent. These things come out like 2 days after the movie hit.

Ebert: Well, DVDs are popular. Video games are kind of off the radar. Now, television, mass media hasn’t really covered video games because it’s too complicated. A really good video game can go down 20, 30, 40 layers. There’s no way to really review it except to just show one sample scene or something. Video games are big, and DVDs are big, but actually the box office slumped this year–if you look year to year, from last year to this year, you’ll find the movies aren’t the same.

I mean, the weekend that ‘Spiderman II’ opened last year, this year we got…I think it was ‘Monster-In-Law.’ You know, so it’s not gonna do ‘Spiderman II’ business. And so it’s not that the box office slumped, it’s that they didn’t have a blockbuster for that weekend. Some of the movies, like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Batman Begins,’ it’s not going through the roof, but it’s certainly up in the attic somewhere. And Hollywood, I know, is concerned. And my advice is people like to go to the movies, they like to go to theaters. They want to go to something that excites them, and this has not been a real exciting summer.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that. I wonder, just beyond this summer–I’ve gone on your web site, which I want to reference in just a second on my little handy blue card here. But I wonder whether or not–well, you can feel this, obviously: Is your thumb staying up more these days, or staying down more? Is stuff getting worse or better?

Ebert: It’s interesting because on the web site I review most of everything. All kinds of movies. On TV we review movies that are basically in national release, and there are more movies than we can review. We tend to want to review movies that we tend to want to recommend. If it’s a big movie and we don’t like it, we’ll review it. If it’s a little movie and we don’t like it, we won’t bother with it. So that there’s a little statistical thing going on that aims toward more thumbs up, even though there may be thumbs-down movies out there that we’re not getting to. On the web site, I think it stays about the same.

Tavis: Jonathan. Right here, Jonathan. Has your thumb ever done this?

Ebert: I wish it would. You see, in the newspaper I give 1 to 4 stars. 3 stars means yes, 2 1/2 stars means no. And if I had a 5-star system, I would have a middle position.

And sometimes, you know, there’s that kind of movie. Well, it’s not that good, it’s not that bad. You know, I wish I had a middle position, but I don’t.

So we have the concept on TV where you’re talking about the affectionate thumbs down…or the marginal thumbs down, whatever that means. I mean, the thumbs are so gradated that they should have a dial for them.

Tavis: For those who’ve missed, or might have missed in this summer travel season some of your reviews of late, let me throw some names at you right quick, and top-line ‘em for me. You gave this to ‘Batman Begins.’

Ebert: Yes, I did. It’s the first Batman movie I liked, except for one of the animated films, actually. Animated Batman. This was the first of the 5 big Batman films that I’ve liked, and I thought it was terrific. It’s right up there with ‘Spiderman II’ from last year as being a superhero movie that really does deliver in terms of what we feel about that superhero.

Tavis: You gave this to ‘Cinderella Man.’

Ebert: Yes, I did. I was surprised it didn’t do better at the box office. Maybe the title was wrong. Maybe the fact that he threw that telephone wasn’t a good idea. That movie is such a good performance by Russell Crowe, and such a nice man.

Tavis: I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard about that. But I’ve also been in conversation with folk about the fact that they were surprised it didn’t do better, either, because boxing–Hollywood seems to love boxing movies.

Ebert: Well, yeah. And look at ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ how well that did. I’m surprised. I think it’ll probably find an audience on DVD. It’s a very good movie.

Tavis: I love Cedric the Entertainer. He’s a personal friend of mine.

Ebert: OK, now, I liked that movie.

Tavis: Hold the phone. I’m going there. I love him. He’s a personal friend of mine. He was on this show to promote his movie. But some more Ebonics for you, that movie didn’t bust a grape.

Ebert: Was it peeled, the grape?

Tavis: You gave it a thumbs up.

Ebert: I did.

Tavis: ‘The Honeymooners,’ we’re talking about.

Ebert: I’m gonna tell you I’m surprised at the negative opinions about that film. You’ve heard about that web site The Tomato Meter, where they evaluate it? It got, like, a 15 on the tomato meter. 85% of the critics hated it. I liked it. I thought that Mike Epps and Cedric the Entertainer were not trying to do Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, that they had their own angle. It was sweet, it was int–I loved the whole business of racing the greyhound. That was funny.

Tavis: Yeah, that was funny. I liked it.

Ebert: And Leguizamo was very funny as the so-called dog trainer, or dog whisperer. Come on, I’ll bet if people were to go to see that movie…

Tavis: They’d laugh.

Ebert: You hated it, though, right?

Tavis: No. I loved it.

Ebert: Oh, you did love it. Oh, I didn’t get that.

Tavis: I ain’t got a problem with it. I’m just saying it didn’t bust a grape. That’s all I’m saying.

Ebert: Oh, OK, OK. Well, I’m glad that we agree because it was a nice movie, wasn’t it?

Tavis: It was a very nice movie.

Ebert: What was bad about it?

Tavis: Nothing. It was a great movie.

Ebert: OK. Thank you.

Tavis: You give it thumbs up; I go see it, that’s how it works.

Ebert: OK.

Tavis: Roger Ebert, we congratulate on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Nice to meet you.

Ebert: You bet.

A LOOK BACK
March 31st, 2013, by Staff

Phil Ramone was one of the most prolific music producers in the industry, as evidenced by his 33 Grammy nominations, 14 Grammy Awards and an Emmy. He was a pioneer in the use of technology, producing the first-ever CD and the first pop DVD, and worked with a diverse group of artists, including Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, John Legend, Billy Joel and Tony Bennett. A child prodigy, Ramone played violin at age 3 and began his producing career after spending years working as an engineer. His work also spanned the mediums of film, television and theater.

Learn more about Mr. Ramone at his official website.

In February 2007, we talked with Ramone about his Grammy-winning project with Tony Bennett. Check out the following transcript of our engaging conversation.

Tavis: Phil Ramone is one of the most successful and innovative producers in the history of music. During his brilliant career, he’s helped craft the sounds of artists like Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, and Ray Charles, just to name a few. On Sunday night, he added another award to his already-overflowing trophy case, with a Grammy for his most recent project, Tony Bennett’s duets. Phil Ramone, congratulations, and nice to have you on the program.

Phil Ramone: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: This is the first time we’ve actually met in person. We’ve talked on radio before, when you were in a New York studio. I don’t know if you recall or not, but the last time we talked, you were on my radio program, talking about the Ray Charles project with a guy who’s no longer with us named Billy Preston.

Ramone: Oh. Billy was so good. Such an – well, incredible musician. And I saw some old footage of him the other day.

Tavis: The Fifth Beatle.

Ramone: Yeah. And he was like James Brown when he was a kid, dancing on stage. Amazing guy. A wonderful guy.

Tavis: Let me take you back, before we go forward. Let me take you back. What was it like working on that Ray project? We’ll get to Tony Bennett in just a second. But that Ray project was spectacular.

Ramone: There was no health problem that I could see in the beginning, and that started off in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. I called Ray because Van Morrison wanted to do a duet with his dream. He’d never met Ray, wanted to work with him. So, (laugh) we got that together, and that seemed to be the beginning of it. Concord Records was just in the talking stages, and Ray’s life, for him, was, like, why would I do these songs?

It’s sort of similar to what Sinatra said. They’ve heard all these tunes. And I said, “No, no, no, no, this is about you and guests.” And nothing was better than Ray doing a duet in the first place. And the conditions were at his studio, in a certain way where artists came in, they were so anxious and the honor of working with him is, well, probably everything you’d ever wanna have in your life.

When he’d sit at the keyboard and start getting a groove. I said to him after a couple of songs, “I don’t know how and where that comes from.” He said, “It comes from Basie.” Count Basie. That’s who started that all. Used to pull the tempo down. And I think it’s probably one of the great accomplishments in your life, is to be around him.

Tavis: How do you talk these guys into doing this? When you sit with Sinatra and say, “You ought to do these duets with these people, and here’s why you ought to do it.” Ray Charles, you ought to do these duets with these people, here’s why. Tony Bennett. These are legends you’re working with. How do you get them to buy into the vision, the dream, that you’re laying out for them, which in every case has turned out to be, has led to major success in each of their careers?

Ramone: Well, I guess it started in the Sinatra thing. I grew up watching TV and stuff like every other kid, and duets seemed to be a nice way to get two artists to do something. There was something warm about it. Ella and Frank Sinatra, I never forgot those dates. Then when we talked about it, I sat down and begged that we’d have a meeting.

And the usual replies, and I don’t wanna be the guy that does all the duets in the world. I certainly, it fell into place, because I said “It’s about children.” His grandchildren, my children, other peoples’ children, to hear an artist at his best. And reassess the songs. Don’t try to do the same arrangements or new arrangements.

In the Sinatra case, and in Tony, they were different attitudes. One, Frank had not been in a studio for 10 years, and he felt, well, “I’m not ready for a duet.” And he kept stretching it and saying, “Maybe, maybe not.” But after six months, he agreed to it. Whereas Tony said, and he had been a guest on the Sinatra album, “I’d like to make one rule. I want everybody there, live.” And so the whole plan becomes an adventure in what used to be entertainment. Singing a live duet was kind of the way of life.

Tavis: So first of all, congrats on this fourteenth Grammy. I was just laughing – not to make you feel old – but you do realize that you won your first Grammy in the same year that I was born.

Ramone: That’s possible. Because my mom took me to the Grammys (laugh).

Tavis: (Laugh) Nineteen sixty-four, the year I’m born, you win your first Grammy, and I’m gonna put you on the spot. You do recall what it was for, correct?

Ramone: Yeah.

Tavis: All right.

Ramone: Yeah, you don’t forget that.

Tavis: All right, the first one was?

Ramone: “Girl From Ipanema.”

Tavis: The “Girl From Ipanema.” Yeah.

Ramone: No, you don’t ever. I said it last night, “There’s God driving,” and everybody saying to me, “Well, how does it feel?” I said, “As good as any kind of winning of a baseball game.” Any time you’re in this business that something is so recognizable. Tony’s the most incredible guy in the world.

Tavis: That voice. He has sat in this same chair, one of the great honors of my career is having Tony Bennett come to this studio, sit in this same chair, and spend a half an hour talking to me. What is it about that voice that at 80, he still belts those notes?

Ramone: You have to have the right genes for this thing to last. As Sinatra used to call it, the reed. It’s like something that’s a gift. Some people beat it up. He doesn’t. He’s an athlete. Plays tennis. He walks. His attitude about so much time for painting. And he plays, he works. He keeps the muscle going, as he says. And I don’t know anybody who has an attitude like that.

Tavis: My dear friend, Professor Cornel West and I, last summer, after Mr. Bennett being on this program, went to see him at a couple of dates. And I had never, in all these years, I had never seen him live. So last summer was my first time going to see Tony Bennett live. And aside from his voice, which you can see that on TV and know the guy still has it. But seeing him live, there’s one thing that just moved me that I still remember to this day.

I’ve never seen anybody more gracious and more appreciative of the audience. After every – and I mean every one, you know this – after every song, he tucks that mic under his arm, and does this applause for the audience. I’ve never seen that in my life.

Ramone: I think he brings – sometimes I asked him about where the entertainer thing comes from. ‘Cause that’s a fascinating thing. Some people, like Michael Bublé and some of the guests that are on that record, have a way of doing something in the studio first. James Taylor. Everybody. Sting. Everybody that showed up had something.

John Legend, I think no one knew what John – I knew what John was gonna do, but not from a character point of view. And you hear it, because they watched him. They have watched him in performance, and he genuinely loves what he’s doing. And he embraces his quartet. So this is something he acquired, but it’s his.

Tavis: Yeah, there’s a humanity about that guy the likes of which I’ve never seen. It’s amazing. How do you know when a duet is going – what makes you know a duet’s going to work? And I say that because I’ve heard a number of duets in my life. Many have worked, others have not. There’s a trick to doing this, to make the two – I’m talking about even folk who are both good at what they do. It doesn’t mean it’s gonna work together.

Ramone: That’s kind of what an all-star game can be or not be.

Tavis: Precisely.

Ramone: You step to the plate.

Tavis: A lot of these baseball references, you must be a baseball fan.

Ramone: Oh, I’m a nut. I’m a total nut.

Tavis: Okay. (Laugh) I like the metaphor.

Ramone: I just can’t help it. I think that what we do is create these three to five minute pieces, and before they don’t have to be cohesive, there’s no book. The book is the song first. That, for me, is probably the most primary source of what excites you. And then you have a repertoire. If you’re gonna work with Tony or any of the greats, you have to have a good choice.

So maybe 25 choices, and I say to you, “Okay, Tavis, here’s a song I think you could do with him.” And something about it, you say “Well, I’m not comfortable with that.” “Well, if you were to pick the best?” “Well, I love this song.” Then I start the construction. And it becomes very tricky at times, because who should start the song off? Who should switch?

Like Barbra Streisand had a real problem with how she would enter into the song, right? So she said, “Maybe I should start. Maybe I do this kind of thing, and this magical voice comes from here.” So you – it’s architecture in its best form. It’s the best music, the best lyric. So I kind of feel much more confident. I think a good director has that when he has a script.

Tavis: I wanna close talking about this new CD you have in just a second. First, though, I’ve been dying to ask you this question more than any other. I’m always fascinated and hungry to learn from iconic figures. Those who have set themselves far and above the rest of us, where their God-given gift is concerned.

If you could give me one enduring lesson that you have learned, one good piece of advice that you’ve learned from working with iconic figures like Sinatra and Charles and Streisand and Bennett, etcetera, what would that be? What have you learned from working with these – one thing you know for sure that you’ve learned from working with these greats?

Ramone: I gotta think that one that becomes a philosophy of work, which is “no excuses.”

Tavis: No excuses.

Ramone: None.

Tavis: Yeah.

Ramone: And don’t speak if you don’t have to about trivia. The time for joking comes because of the trust, and you have to earn the trust. So, I don’t alibi for anything, and I’ll take the heat. That’s the other thing. Don’t let them take the heat. We take the heat.

Tavis: I like that. No excuses. No alibis for anything. This new project, “New Music from an Old Friend.” I love the concept. Tell me about the concept of the project, first of all.

Ramone: Well, they brought it to me and said, just the title fascinated me. And some of the artists who are composers, really. It’s kind of a songwriter’s dream, is to have the original song, Carole King, let’s say, or Burt Bacharach, and you’re doing “Alfie” with Peabo Bryson. We cast it, like, ’cause it’s not really a duet. But when it is, it’s an interesting place.

And then you hear a brand new song by the same composer. So I don’t know, except for what I feel instinctively, that I think it could be a home run, or it’ll certainly be, for itself, a good piece of music, and a good piece of art. And I think that’s the mantra for all of us, is like why not try to make the best thing possible? And “New Music from an Old Friend” sounds – I even asked Paul Williams to write the title as if it was the name of a show.

Tavis: I love the concept, and I love the project. And speaking of baseball metaphors, I’m sure it’s gonna be a hit. Not just a hit, a home run. No, not even that. A grand slam. ‘Cause Phil Ramone never strikes out. How’s that?

Ramone: I love that.

Tavis: I can go on this for a while, if you want to (laugh).

Ramone: No, no, no, it’s okay.

Tavis: I got a few of these.

Ramone: No (laugh).

Tavis: Okay (laugh). Phil Ramone, nice to meet you.

Ramone: Tavis, thank you.

Tavis: Glad to have you on the program.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
March 9th, 2013, by Guest Blogger

BY MICHAEL R. WENGER

Both personally and professionally, my life journey has been blessed by its racial diversity. I grew up in a working class Jewish family in New York City and got involved in the civil rights movement while in college in the early 1960s. In the late 1960s, I worked in the anti-poverty program in West Virginia. Then, in 1970, just three years after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, ruled that laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage were unconstitutional, I married an African American woman from rural, segregated North Carolina. Although we divorced 11 years later and I am now married to a white woman, we remain a close family with three children, four grandchildren and a great grandson.

Professionally, I had the privilege of serving as Deputy Director for Outreach and Program Development for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race in 1997 and 1998. Since then, I have worked at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused exclusively on issues of particular concern to the African American community and other communities of color.

Through my experiences I have had the opportunity to peer into a world far beyond the comprehension of most white people in our society. I have become aware of the pain that well-meaning white Americans inflict on people of color, often without knowing it, and I have come to recognize the richness that awaits those with the courage to embrace our nation’s growing diversity. Yet, I also have come to understand how much I still have to learn about race in this country and how much I will never be able learn. The following excerpt from the book’s first chapter illustrates what I mean.

In 1999, at a reception in Washington, DC, for members of the Joint Center Board of Governors, a rather portly and well-dressed African American gentleman approached me.

“Hello.” He smiled as he stuck out his hand. “My name is Hector Hyacinthe.” I had never met him, but I recognized his name from the list of board members and knew he was a prominent businessman from Westchester County, New York. “Mike Wenger,” I replied as we shook hands.

“Good to meet you, Mike. Are you from D.C.?”

“Nope, originally from Brooklyn,” I replied.

“Really? What part?”

“East New York.”

“Really? What street?”

“Bradford Street.”

“What number?”

“Three hundred.”

“Three eighty!” he proclaimed triumphantly.

“That’s right across the street from my grandparents’ house. They lived at three-eighty-one.”

Hector nodded. “Yep, lived there until I finished high school.”

We spent the next several minutes comparing notes on the old neighborhood. Then I spent the remainder of the evening trying to reconcile my surprise at what I’d just learned about Hector with what I’d suddenly realized was the subconscious mixed message of my childhood. Simply stated: “Blacks deserve equal rights but they are not really our equals.” More importantly, I was left to ponder how this mixed message conspired to make us liberal white people complicit in the pervasive racial discrimination that we so glibly condemn…

All the neighbors on my grandparents’ side of the street had similar backgrounds. They were primarily older Russian and Polish immigrant families who had bought their homes many years earlier and raised their children on that block. Now, they yearned for nothing more than to finish their lives in these familiar surroundings, the men playing checkers in the park, the women preparing for daily or weekly visits from children and grandchildren, most of whom had not strayed far from the old neighborhood. They feared, however, that their modest dream was being challenged by an influx of black families with young children. Many were from the South, and they now occupied every house on the other side of the street, two or three families to an apartment, in some cases. Although they were separated only by the width of a tree-lined city street, these two groups had virtually no contact with each other. Not even the Berlin Wall that divided colorful and lively West Berlin from gray and dreary East Berlin when I was there in 1983 could have made the divide any more explicit.

The houses on my grandparents’ side of the street were all owner-occupied and had the look of being lovingly cared for as the prized possessions they were. Their red brick exteriors were clean and bright and screens hung in every window frame. Meticulously trimmed hedges defined each owner’s postage stamp front yard. Across the street, nearly all the families were renters, the prevailing ambiance was drab, window screens were the exception, and little healthy shrubbery was visible in the front yards, many of which were paved over. There was no obvious hostility between the two sides of the street, but there was no communication, either. Rarely did anybody on my grandparents’ side of the street even park their car on the other side of the street. As children, we understood that we were not to walk on the other side of the street. I spent a major portion of my childhood at my grandparents’ house, but until I met Hector when I was fifty-seven years old, I’d never actually met anyone who lived across the street…

The unspoken message of my childhood, conveyed by my grandparents’ attitude toward the people across the street and by my parents’ acceptance of Woodmere’s norms, was that black people were different. Those who lived across the street from my grandparents didn’t take pride in their homes, or work hard, or place much emphasis on doing well in school. As a child I did not comprehend the fact that they were renting from landlords who had fled the neighborhood and who refused to maintain their properties. Nor was I cognizant of the fact that while my grandfather could get a union job as a skilled laborer in a shoe factory, the best work that the men across the street could hope for were nonunion jobs as janitors in the factory. Nor did I perceive anything wrong with the fact that all of the teachers at the local elementary school had my skin color, as did all of the store owners and other financially successful adults I encountered in the neighborhood.

I doubt that any of the adults in our family were conscious of these factors. Certainly, no adult ever tried to discuss any of these issues with me. Of course, I would have been too young to understand such matters, anyway. But these negative racial stereotypes ingrained at an early age took hold, and I was unsettled, nearly fifty years later, by my surprise at finding someone from the even-numbered side of my grandparents’ block who had achieved Hector’s level of success. It seemed that I had learned the unspoken message quite well. In my head, I knew better, but I was incapable of turning off the default setting in my brain, even if the setting lasted for just a split second.

_______

Michael R. Wenger is a Senior Fellow and Acting Vice President for Civic Engagement and Governance at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC. He also teaches classes on race and minority relations and on Institutional Racism: Policies and Prescriptions as an adjunct faculty member in the sociology department at The George Washington University. This passage is excerpted from his memoir, My Black Family, My White Privilege: A White Man’s Journey Through the Nation’s Racial Minefield. He can be contacted at wengerjm@verizon.net.

A LOOK BACK
March 5th, 2013, by Staff

 

In September 2006, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chàvez sat down with us just days after his controversial speech to the United Nations. Among the topics discussed during our conversation: his comment during that speech calling then-President George W. Bush “the devil,” his overall feelings about the United States, how the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. impacted his life and his thoughts on how to end poverty.

Although the outspoken soldier-turned-politician was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, he won re-election to a new term in 2012.

Chàvez recently passed away at age 58, after more than 14 years as leader of the oil-rich Latin American country.

On our March 11, 2013 show, we reflected on his complex legacy.

A LOOK BACK
February 21st, 2013, by Staff

Update: Kudos to Malik Bendjelloul, director, editor and animator of Searching for Sugar Man, for his win in the best documentary feature category. It was the first music-oriented film to win the documentary award since 1986.

 

From the “2013 class” of Academy Award nominees, there were several who joined us for enlightening conversations about their films. Take a look below at the rewind of our  exchanges with these talented actors/filmmakers.

Congratulations to all of this year’s nominees.

As Oscar night nears, the frontrunner for best documentary feature seems to be Searching for Sugar Man, which has won numerous festival awards, as well as the BAFTA and the Producer’s Guild Award. Filmmaker—and first-time nominee—Malik Bendjelloul explained how he came upon the remarkable story of singer-songwriter Rodriguez and his unlikely resurrection in South Africa following a forgettable career in the U.S.
(View full post to see video)

 

With 12 nominations, Lincoln topped all the films this year. For her feisty portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field earned her third Oscar nod—this time for a supporting role—and, in her two nights with us, she not only reflected on her two previous wins (for leading roles in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart), but also on her nearly 50 years in the business.

Part 1
(View full post to see video)

Part 2
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Screenwriter David Magee earned his second adapted screenplay nomination for Life of Pi (his first was for Finding Neverland). His nom is one of 11 for the story of a young man who survives a disaster at sea and hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery.
(View full post to see video)

 

Among the 8 nominations racked up by Silver Linings Playbook are two nods for writer-director David O. Russell. He was a nominee for 2010′s The Fighter and has already won several awards this season for this romantic comedy. He explained his personal connection to the subject matter when he sat down with us just a few weeks ago.
(View full post to see video)

 

A LOOK BACK
February 7th, 2013, by Staff

“I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I am completely free.” Those were the words used at the 2003 news conference at which Washington-Williams revealed her secret of being the mixed-race daughter of onetime segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Born in 1925 after Thurmond, then 22, had an affair with a 16-year-old Black maid who worked in his family’s Edgefield, SC, home, she kept in touch with her famous father, even though he never publicly acknowledged her.

Washington-Williams passed away February 4, 2013 in Columbia, SC at age 87.

She sat down with us twice: In our inaugural 2004 season, shortly after her riveting press conference, and again in 2005, to talk about her then-new autobiography, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. Read the transcripts of our engaging conversations here.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
January 14th, 2013, by Staff

Kudos to our 2012 guests who took home 2013 Golden Globes: Don Cheadle; Kevin Costner; Damian Lewis; and Jay Roach. And, check out our roundup of their visits with us, which includes conversations about their award-winning projects.

Don Cheadle – February 21, 2012
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A TELEVISION SERIES – COMEDY OR MUSICAL (Marty Kaan in House of Lies)

The co-exec producer of and actor in Showtime’s House of Lies shares what it’s like to play a character that was not written explicitly for a Black man.
(View full post to see video)

 

Kevin Costner – May 24-25, 2012
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION (“Devil” Anse Hatfield in Hatfields & McCoys)
In a two-night conversation, the two-time Oscar winner reflects on his body of work and the moment he fully committed to becoming a thespian and discloses the one thing he feels people would envy of him.
(View full post to see video)

In part two, Costner discusses his role in the History channel’s first scripted miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, and his band’s companion CD.

(View full post to see video)

 

Damian Lewis – May 4, 2012
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A TELEVISION SERIES –- DRAMA (Nicholas Brody in Homeland)
The British actor reflects on portraying American history in Band of Brothers and weighs in on President Obama’s comment on his latest star vehicle, Showtime’s Peabody Award-winning drama series, Homeland.
(View full post to see video)

 

Jay Roach – March 2, 2012
BEST MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION (Game Change)

The director and producer of Game Change, the HBO dramatization of the 2008 presidential campaign, talks about VP candidate Sarah Palin and whether the filmmakers “went soft” on Sen. John McCain.
(View full post to see video)

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
January 14th, 2013, by Staff

Nearly 50 million Americans live in poverty, which means that more than 16% of our fellow citizens are struggling to survive. For children, that number is 20%–and, worst of all, for African Americans, the figure is nearly 26%. With all the talk of a slow recovery from the deepest recession since the U.S. depression, there doesn’t seem to be much good news for the country’s poor.

It’s against the stark backdrop of these numbers that we broadcast three nights of a special conversation on poverty. “Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty” examines one of the most important, but often-forgotten issues of our time. Panelists discussed proven solutions on how government officials can contain the wildfire of American poverty.

Guests included: Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and associate professor of Drexel University’s School of Public Health; Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United; Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH); Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House; John D. Graham, dean, Indiana University School of Public & Environmental Affairs and author of America’s Poor and the Great Recession; Jonathan Kozol, author of Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America; Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University; and Cornel West, Union Theological Seminary professor and author.

Watch our discussion on ways to aggressively address the economic crisis in the U.S. by refusing to abandon those Americans most in need—the perennially poor and the new poor—the country’s former middle class.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
December 12th, 2012, by Guest Blogger

BY DR. LINDA BRADLEY

This year, take on an oath and pledge. Annually, we all make resolutions usually related to our financial, spiritual, educational or physical health. I want you to think about your most important possession: your health. It’s the most important asset that you possess, and it trumps everything else in life. Healthy individuals make stronger communities. It’s just as simple as that.

Are you digging your grave with your fork?

Each of us can improve our lifestyle choices on a daily basis. How? By making conscious choices about what you select to put in your body. What’s in your refrigerator or handbag? Real food or junk food? Are you consuming too much alcohol? Each week, write down one new healthy resolution that you would like to accomplish. Sure it sounds like homework; but, putting your thoughts on paper and checking off your accomplishments are more often associated with success than just daydreaming about your goals.

Each of us can be the cure. You can cure or modify your risk for premature death and disability by: exercising, losing weight, controlling hypertension, stop smoking, wearing a seat belt and managing stress. It is as simple as that. Seventy percent of health care dollars are spent on diseases related to obesity, smoking and diabetes—almost all of which are controlled by individual choices.

When it comes to eating and losing weight, Michael Pollan sums it up best with seven simple and liberating words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Since reading his best-selling book, In Defense of Food, I have changed my eating habits one meal at a time.

How does this doctor want you to become an empowered patient?

Eat home cooked food more often. Make enough so that you can have it for lunch. Not only will you save tons of money, but you will cook with less salt, fat and sugar than in a similar meal eaten at a fast food or chain restaurant.

Don’t eat standing up. Stop eating in your car; rather eat at a table and not in front of a TV. Chew your food more slowly. Why? When you are distracted, you eat 50% more than when you are aware of what you are eating.

Don’t drink your calories. Did you know that each twelve ounce can of Coca Cola has 10-12 teaspoons of sugar? Eating an orange rather than drinking orange juice is actually healthier for you. Because fruit has loads of fiber, less calories and great phytonutrients compared to juice. Fiber makes you fill fuller longer, decreases the hunger urge and will add fewer inches to your waistline.

Eat four servings of fruit and five servings of vegetables daily. I mean fruit in its own skin. Fruit with curves. Apples, oranges, bananas, pineapples, berries or any fruit in season. If you can’t get fresh fruit, buy it frozen. Read the package label, and only purchase frozen fruits and vegetables without added sugar or salt. Frozen fruits and vegetables are picked at the height of the season and have high vitamin content. During the winter months, I always keep a piece of fruit in my car. After a long day at work and long commute home, eating a pear or apple on the way home keeps me from feeling ravenous when I walk into my house.

Dig out of the grave, forkful by forkful. Make a conscious choice of what to put in your body. These choices embody the essence of taking care of self: self-care reform. Do for yourself what government, doctors, religious community or friends can not do for you. Make the extra effort to learn more ways to become healthy, including learning to cook. Self-care reform means you choose to make an old family recipe more nutritious by trying a new spice or condiment that enhances flavor, thereby using less oil and fat. My collard greens recipe will fool the oldest great-grandmother alive. It’s healthy and fat and meat free:

Dr. Bradley’s Mean, Lean, Collard Greens

Ingredients
¼ cup vegetable stock to sauté the onions, mushrooms and garlic
2 large yellow onions coarsely chopped = about 3 cups
2 cups sliced white button mushrooms (about 1 small package = 6 oz)
12 garlic cloves sliced thin
1 tablespoon chipotle in adobe (comes in a small can, just use one chipotle and 1 tsp of the sauce). Do not use the whole can of the fiery peppers. This is spicy. Save the rest for up to 2 months in a Ziploc bag and put in a freezer.
¼ cup cider vinegar
4 tablespoons of smoked paprika, divided
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1½ cups vegetable stock (can use from a can); may need more to keep collard greens moist as they cook
4 tablespoons black strap molasses
5 pounds (about 4-5 bunches) collard greens, cleaned, off the stem and rough chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, heat the vegetable stock on medium heat. Add the onions and mushrooms, sauté for about 6-7 minutes or until the onions are wilted. Then add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the chipotle, 3 tablespoons of smoked paprika, vinegar, soy sauce, vegetable stock and molasses. Stir about 2-3 minutes.

Then stir in the greens, a third at a time, pressing the greens down as they start to wilt, and stir now and then. Cover them as they cook. Cook on medium heat. Add more vegetable stock to keep moist. Cook the greens, covered, for about 45 minutes. Add one tablespoon of smoked paprika, salt and pepper and cook another 5-10 minutes.

Enjoy—it’s even better the next day!

Self-care reform means that you choose what to put on your fork. Forkful by forkful you will see a difference in your health. Advocacy begins with you. Personally speak to the owners of your local grocer and request that more fresh, local, seasonal fruits and vegetables be stocked in the produce aisle. Boycott stores that don’t listen to your requests.

Finally, self-care reform means that you will share your new wisdom with your friends and family. Self-care reform is transformative. Taste it…you’ll like it.

Dr. Linda Bradley Dr. Linda Bradley is a renowned surgeon who serves as the vice chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Cleveland Clinic. She is also the founder of a program aimed at women of color called “Celebrate Sisterhood.”

SEEN & HEARD
October 13th, 2012, by Carla Amurao

We’re quickly approaching the 2012 presidential elections, and with that comes a lot of topics for debate. We were lucky enough to have political guests Ari Berman and Phyllis Bennis shed some insight on such issues as supposed voter fraud and foreign policy, respectively.

A majority of the population can agree that America can always work harder to be better–something economist Jeffrey Sachs can attest to. Guests T.I. and Sheila Bair also discuss persevering and bettering oneself.

We can only better ourselves with attaining more and more knowledge–we can take a page from NOVA scienceNow host David Pogue‘s book and branch out into something else completely different. (Speaking of doing something different, imagine Pretty in Pink actor Andrew McCarthy being a travel writer!) Or, we can take the knowledge we’ve learned from the ground up to create something of our own, in our own way, much like filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Or, on the other hand, we can take our knowledge and share it with the world through our passions, like pianist Lang Lang.

All in all, our goal as individuals, and in effect, a unified country, is to get better for a brighter future, as writer Joan Walsh suggests. That way, we can become more grateful for what we have…which is something actor Ethan Hawke can find in every facet of his job.

Check out the gallery featuring some of October 2012′s guests.

All images by Van Evers, Tavis Smiley Media, Inc.

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