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At the Movies

A Virginia filmmaker covers the final days of critic Roger Ebert in a new documentary.

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When Steve James was about to present his latest documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in January, he suddenly choked up.

It was here, 20 years earlier, that James first screened his acclaimed documentary, "Hoop Dreams," following two black high-school students who dreamed of careers in the NBA. The documentary launched James' career, but received distribution only after it was championed by film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

Now James was going to premiere "Life Itself," a biographical documentary based on Ebert's 2011 memoir of the same name. Unable to speak halfway through his introduction, James finally whispered, "Enjoy the film."

"I was thinking about all that Roger had meant to my career," says James, a Virginia native and James Madison University alumnus. "To be there literally 20 years after the Sundance premiere there and the impact he had, it got to me."

Ebert, who died from cancer last year, has been called the most influential critic of any medium, ever. He reviewed cinema for roughly half the time that the form existed, and did so with approachable and smart criticism. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, the first film critic to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and, with Siskel, the first film critic to have a television show.

Ebert's endorsement sent James on a career looking at the intersection of race, class and sports in his films. With "The Interrupters," he profiled three people working to stop violence and murder in Chicago. In "No Crossover: the Trial of Allen Iverson," James returned to Hampton to explore the former NBA star's upbringing and involvement in a 1993 riot at a bowling alley.

"I think that my experience growing up in Hampton made me — and I don't think this word is too strong — obsessed with race as an issue and a topic," James says. "It really made me think about those things, or set me on a path to make me want to understand about race in America."

With "Life Itself," James jumps back and forth between Ebert's past and the last four months of his life. From his beginnings as an electrician's son to becoming the best-known film critic in America, the documentary shows Ebert as an entertaining and complicated figure. But as important as his writing was, nothing was quite as electric as watching him and Siskel verbally spar on "At the Movies."

From the outset, they didn't like each other much. They not only were critics from rival papers, but also very different as people: Siskel used to run with Hugh Hefner; Ebert enjoyed hanging out at the local bar. Like feuding brothers, the two argued and played pranks on each other — and Ebert liked to note that he was the one with the Pulitzer.

"I think anyone watching the show with any sensitivity knew that they weren't pretending, that they weren't playacting at conflict," James says. "In the very same show they could be laughing about something and then turn around and be at each other's throats. This was a very complicated relationship, and it was a love affair of sorts, but a very tumultuous one."

That relationship ended in 1999 with Siskel's death, following treatment for a cancerous brain tumor. Ebert was hurt that he hadn't been told of Siskel's condition, which informed his own very public battle with thyroid and salivary gland cancer.

Though James always planned to use the present as a springboard to the past in the documentary, Ebert's health rapidly waned during filming. Because of this, much of the dialogue between the two in the film is conducted via email, until Ebert's final days, sending short messages like "I'm fading" and "I can't."

"It's not something that we had foreseen, so that changed the film," James says. "It means that as you're watching the film, it's clear from the start that this is a story where Roger is going to die before the film is done."

Early reviews of the film, set for release in July, rave about "Life Itself," which holds a 100 percent on film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. But for James, the response he received at Sundance from Ebert's fans and colleagues was an honor in itself.

"You felt the emotion in the room, you felt the response to the film," he says. "It was a chance for them to see Roger and also mourn his passing." S

Steve James will appear at the AFI DocsS Film Festival on June 22 in Washington. "Life Itself" will be screened at the festival, and the film will open at Washington's E Street Cinema on July 4. The film eventually will be broadcast on CNN after its theatrical run is complete.

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