In the spring of 1989, Roger Ebert walked out of a Cannes Film Festival screening with tears in his eyes. For someone who turned to movies as a way to understand the worlds of others, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing must have felt like an empathy overload—the story of several intersecting lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood teeming with racial tension. A few days later, when the movie failed to win the festival’s top prize, Roger was enraged.
“Roger thought that the movie had been cheated,” Chaz Ebert, Roger’s wife, said. “He was so angry at that time, that he told them at Cannes that he would never come back, because he felt that Do the Right Thing should have won. And there is a very funny note that Spike Lee wrote to Roger and said, “Dear Roger Ebert: I give you permission to return to the Cannes Film Festival even though Do the Right Thing didn’t win.”
Later, when Do the Right Thing was shut out of the major Oscar races, Gene Siskel and Roger were livid. They’d both picked the movie as their no. 1 film of the year—which had only happened on their show once before, with The Right Stuff, back in 1983. They’d also both put Do the Right Thing on their top-10 lists for the entire decade.
Nowadays, the Academy—and all of its flaws—are ongoing points of contention. But that wasn’t the case 30 years ago. And while Gene and Roger had complained about the Oscars in the past, the Do the Right Thing snub was a never-ending source of outrage. They brought it up on the air whenever they could. For Gene and Roger, who’d spent so much time battling one another, the Academy gave them a common foe to team up against.
“The membership is older, it’s white,” Siskel said of the Academy. “And they didn’t embrace this film. Which was clearly, way out ahead, the best film of the year, as far as I was concerned. I wanna tell ya: They prefer race when it’s dealt with at a distance. In Glory, 100 years ago.”
“Or in Driving Miss Daisy,” Roger Ebert added. “Now those are both very good movies, but it’s much easier to have a movie about how Miss Daisy and her old Black chauffeur like each other than to have a movie about—the real question in our society today isn’t whether Miss Daisy likes her chauffeur. But whether Mookie and Sal the pizzeria man will ever get to like each other. Because until they can talk to each other, race relations in this country are going to be on hold.”
In that same episode of Siskel & Ebert, they’d also rail against the Academy’s treatment of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me. The documentary follows Moore as he travels through Flint, Michigan, where General Motors had been closing plants and laying off thousands of workers. It had been one of their favorite movies of the year, and a modest box-office success. But Roger & Me had been completely shut out of the documentary-Oscar race, and many of its fans—including Siskel and Ebert—suspected it was a victim of the Academy’s broken voting system.
Back in the ’90s, the Academy’s documentary committee was mostly made up of older retirees. They didn’t go for controversial topics. And sometimes, they didn’t even finish the movies they were supposed to watch: If one of the voters got bored, he or she would shine a flashlight at the screen. When enough flashlights popped up in the room, the movie was simply turned off.
These kinds of arcane behind-the-scenes struggles weren’t exactly a hot topic. But Gene and Roger made obscure Oscar rules a point of conversation, one that was picked up by the mainstream press. It was a subject the critics returned to just a few years later, when Steve James’s basketball saga Hoop Dreams was also shut out of the documentary category.
Siskel and Ebert took their case to the Late Show with David Letterman, where everyone, including Dave, commiserated over Hoop Dreams’ shutout.
A few months later, the Academy announced they’d be incorporating new voting laws—and new voters. That’s not to say that it was Siskel and Ebert who got the rules changed. But no other critics had the reach, or the sway, to turn a bureaucratic squabble into a common cause.
The Academy was just one of many targets Siskel and Ebert homed in on during the ’90s, but the voting system change proved one thing for certain: If two of the country’s most influential critics wanted something changed, sooner or later, it likely would be.
Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.