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Stanley Crouch: Ebert’s vision of America

When we see integration at work in an unpretentious way, we sometimes feel the country has truly affirmed itself, displaying human understanding on the highest level. That’s what I thought about last week after I learned of the passing of Roger Ebert, the impressive and popular film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Just take a look at his review for “The Great Debaters,” the 2007 film starring Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington. The film was underwritten by the production company of Oprah Winfrey, with whom Ebert once went on two dates, on one of which he famously suggested she take her show into syndication. That advice certainly stuck; she put her thumb in the ground and went on to turn the world around. What she saw in 2007 is still quite important.

“The Great Debaters” is a work of historical fiction based on the 1935 debate team at Wiley College, a historically black school in Texas. Ebert’s observations about the film were far more profound than those of jaded critics who dismissed it as just another “inspirational” movie bereft of seriousness. Ebert understood how certain thought patterns had decayed into debilitating ideas about who belonged where in American society.

Ebert wrote: “The movie is not really about how this team defeats the national champions. It is more about how its members, its coach, its school and community believe that an education is their best way out of the morass of racism and discrimination. They would find it unthinkable that decades in the future, serious black students would be criticized by jealous contemporaries for acting ‘white.’”

He saw, in this film, that the power of education transcends skin color and all the rest of it. It may be the best weapon one can use to change things.

The New York fact is that, for all his promises, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has not significantly improved the schooling of most black and Hispanic children.

That is in good part because he was shafted by the teachers union, which places the priorities of its members above those of the children they are supposed to be educating.

Yet I am still convinced that he and his team did not figure out how to replicate what the Harlem Educational Activities Fund has done year after year in preparing so-called kids of color for success in college and high school, and what Eva Moskowitz has done with her Success Academy charter network, which began in Harlem and has expanded outward. They know that focused intelligence and patience are what must be used, always.

Ebert understood the importance of such efforts, of bringing high-quality education to the children of the inner city. As he wrote in his review of “Akeelah and the Bee,” the 2006 film about a young black girl who becomes a spelling superstar, “This is a tragedy in some predominantly black schools: Excellence is punished by the other students, possibly as an expression of their own low self-esteem.”

Michelle Obama led a volunteer day of teaching by famous people in the public schools of Washington, D.C. The first lady became something of a resilient angel when she addressed the problem of recalling being accused of talking like a white girl during her public-school years. Her answer to those misled students from her past was quite simple, quite direct. Surrounded by so-called minority children in an urban school, her answer was applicable to any such children in any school. She remembered telling those public-school detractors that she was more concerned about getting A’s than worrying about color.

Ebert, a Chicagoan just like the first lady, saw firsthand what gun violence and cultural poverty were doing to the Windy City’s young.

There is much to be disturbed by in our country these days, but when one sees a group of young black men looking as if they were direct descendants of those students in “The Great Debaters” — sharp as a tack — the real deal is obviously in front of us. If students can learn in New York and Chicago, surrounded by all kinds of hell, then we can avoid the intellectual genocide that usually comes after confident promises and quick fixes.

Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at