The late film critic Roger Ebert and award-winning Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler were the honorees at last night’s third annual Celebrate Sundance Institute event at The Lot in Hollywood. Ebert’s widow Chaz was on hand to accept the Vanguard Leadership Award for her husband, who died April 4 but had hoped to attend in person. The Sundance Institute announced that the Roger Ebert Scholarship For Film Criticism would be established in order to promote “passionate and articulate aspiring young film critics” in the legendary critic’s memory. Sundance founder Robert Redford presented the award to Chaz Ebert and recounted his own personal connection to Roger. Redford recalled meeting him in 1980, right as the actor-director was starting to formulate plans for the development of the Sundance Lab, even before the Festival was started several years later. Ebert, there as a journalist, was interested in covering the beginnings of the Sundance Lab, which would foster independent film.At first Redford said he tried to kick him out because it was way too early, but Ebert persisted and Redford said he soon realized the man truly loved film and had a “phenomenal” generosity of spirit. “One of the things I really came to appreciate about Roger was his voice,” Redford said. “He was a good writer, but it was his voice. Because he came from Chicago, that heartland of America, he carried the same voice of many that had emerged from there before — the Carl Sandburgs, the James T. Farrells, the Saul Bellows, Studs Turkel. They all shared something in common, which is they had a way to speak to the people about the people themselves, and that’s what Roger had. He talked to the audience of the people. He was not elitist. I think we’ve all benefited from his generosity. In terms of my personal career, it didn’t matter that we knew each other. Some of his reviews were positive and some weren’t, but one thing was constant: He was always a supporter of Sundance. He was at every single festival we ever had.”
In accepting, Chaz Ebert acknowledged the bittersweet nature of the event. “He was an amazing man. I tell you I loved him so much because I saw the light in him. People said when he was sick, yes his appearance changed, but I saw beauty, I saw perfection because I saw inside his soul,” she said before reading a speech that praised (in part) the work of Redford and Sundance, a speech Ebert told to his wife and which he likely would have delivered had he been there as originally planned.
Coogler, whose Fruitvale Station won awards at Sundance and Cannes and opens July 12 through The Weinstein Company, touched the crowd in accepting this latest honor, which he said feels different because “it is family”. The film was produced with the aid of the Sundance Institute and has certainly become a point of pride for Redford and the goals of the Sundance Lab and all they are able to provide to nascent filmmakers. Cast members Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz were also in attendance. “I am a storyteller,” Coogler said. “Cinema is a format of telling a story that is so immersive that it works like no other medium. And through that storytelling process human beings are able to connect with people that they otherwise would never have come in contact with in their entire lives. That’s why supporting filmmakers who may have different perspectives is so important.”
And that indeed seemed to be the point of the whole evening.