Fox 4's Shawn Edwards isn't just a blurb whore 

On a cold Saturday evening in late February, a line snakes out of the Gem Theater and onto 18th Street. People wait in anxious knots. The rumor, passed from way up front: There's no room left. Volunteers dash in and out of the packed theater, bringing word of open seats to the crew at the doors; they squeeze in two or three more people accordingly.

Inside, the party is equal parts community and showbiz. As preshow entertainment for the premiere of his film No Joke: The Fifty Funniest Black Movie Comedies Ever, Shawn Edwards, the nationally known film critic for Kansas City's Fox 4 News, has lined up a dancer and a marching band as well as quick testimonials from City Council reps, comedians, Fox 4 management and black entrepreneurs.

Several presenters mention that Edwards and his Fox 4 partner, Russ Simmons, were recently honored by the Los Angeles Press Club as "Best Critics" in the television category of its first National Entertainment Journalism Awards. This stirs applause from the mostly African-American crowd. But the real excitement comes when Edwards' biggest coup strides out onto the stage: Nick Cannon, star of Drumline and host for the evening. Riffing about doing stand-up at a white club down south, Cannon scores big laughs; when he mentions that he's proud to be wearing an Obama pin, he brings down the house.

Next up is Edwards' film. Throughout it, the Gem shakes with laughter. Between clips from Edwards' one-on-one interviews with celebrities such as Will Smith and Denzel Washington, scenes from Stir Crazy, Coming to America and Madea's Family Reunion have the crowd laughing, cheering and — especially in the case of the Tyler Perry movies — speaking the punch lines along with the characters.

Shawn Edwards is a film critic, but he prefers the term "reviewer." At a screening like this, he seems something else: a film celebrant, a champion of movies unchampioned. He's responsible for two documentaries: this and last year's The 100 Best Black Movies Ever (click play below for the trailer). They were inspired by those American Film Institute lists of American movies — lists Edwards considers exclusive. The AFI's comedy list particularly incenses him.

"Are you really telling me that this entire list doesn't have one representation from Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy?" he asks. "They're arguably not only the most entertaining and popular but also the most influential comedians ever! Are you really trying to tell me that Friday couldn't make that list? Friday's universally loved!"

Edwards can get worked up talking about movies. "When Blockbuster stores were big, people would check out Friday and never bring it back. For that alone, it goes on the list — it's the most stolen DVD ever! It's the most never-brought-back DVD in the history of DVDs!"

This is Edwards, who often hears he might be a first. He tells The Pitch, "A lot of people are like, 'Oh, my God! He's the first black movie critic!' When I talk to older African-Americans, anyone 60-plus, it's like, 'We're so proud!'" He shakes his head, thinking: a black film critic. "When I was a kid, it was all Siskel and Ebert. I never even saw one, either."

A first. He chats with the stars, finds his name on full-page movie ads in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. He raises money for scholarships, inspires standing-room-only crowds to show up at 18th and Vine. Why in the world would anybody not like Shawn Edwards?


Why, just a couple of months before being named a "Best Critic," was he also named 2007's "Whore of the Year"? Edwards speaks in superlatives. Like most critics, his conversation reels through favorite movies, obscure titles and the names of who directed what. Unlike most, though, he's also big on industry dish: buzz, box-office numbers, the stuff he follows in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

His casual conversation purls up into blurbs ready for the ads in some alternative universe. There is that riff on Friday's status among thieves, for example, or when he jokes, "You know what the most realistic movie about military existence is? Stripes."

Of When the Levees Break, Spike Lee's wrenching Hurricane Katrina documentary: "One of the most powerful movies I've ever seen. I had to stop watching because I would break down and start crying."

That last one is dead-serious, but he means all three. He feels all three. But when you speak in superlatives, the ones you feel most hardly stand out from the rest.

When Edwards gushes professionally, these superlatives wind up in ads. Sometimes, when a movie he likes is widely panned, he's the only critic quoted, as in a full-page New York Times ad in Febru­ary for Martin Lawrence's Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins. His assessment — "Totally hilarious!" — took up a quarter-page. The attribution that follows, in tinier print: "Shawn Edwards, FOX-TV."

The ad left out "Kansas City."

When he champions a movie that other critics hate, Edwards takes heat. His detractors include other critics (often posting online) as well as Variety editor Timothy Gray, who lists Edwards in his annual round-ups of outrageous "blurbmeisters."

Edwards' most infamous superlative is this rave for the 2002 Britney Spears bomb Crossroads: "Britney rocks! She is like a comet. A talent of her magnitude only comes around once in a lifetime and you can't take your eyes off her when she is on-screen in this totally cool and delightfully hip movie."

Recently, The Pitch asked Edwards about this quote.

"The people online are misrepresenting the metaphor of a comet," he says. "I said she was a talent that comes around about as often as a comet. She was decent in that movie. That's when everybody thought she was poised to be a big star."

This didn't quite clear things up. Maybe she was decent in Crossroads. But was she a comet?

Edwards: "We may not see a talent like hers for a while. When are you going to see another Britney Spears-like talent?"

The Pitch: Anytime they can train somebody to do that.

Edwards: "Not really. Where she was at that point, the way that she was set up — there hasn't been anyone like that since."

The Pitch: When you say "talent," do you mean a person of deep personal talents who can do amazing things or do you mean "talent," the noun they use in Hollywood for "performer," as in "Bring the talent onstage"?

Edwards: "Probably a combination of the two. At the time, she had the skills, and if she would have stayed focused, she would have been huge."

Was Edwards reviewing her performance? Or was he just celebrating the big star she was poised to be? Or was he, as some have alleged, offering a rave to get his name in print?

Edwards insists that differing with criti­cal consensus is a good thing. "What's the point of having critics if we're all supposed to like the same thing?" he asks. "Most critics talk to each other, not the people. They're trying to out-intellect one another."

What makes him different, he believes, is that he talks to the people in the streets and the barbershops. Take "The Screening Room" segment he hosts with Russ Simmons each Friday on Fox 4's morning show. "We don't do that for hardcore cinephiles," Edwards says. "We're doing it for that mom who's trying to get her kids ready for school that morning, for that person who's getting ready to go to a job that they hate."

He thinks of the guys he knows who work construction, guys who call him "Popcorn Man" in honor of the segment's popcorn-bag rating system. These guys don't care about the Oscars. "They really get gung-ho about action and horror movies. And when I'm at my mom's church groups, they only want to know when the next Denzel movie is coming out."

He's getting worked up, but he also sounds tired of having to say this. "People just want to know if the movie is good or bad and if they can take their kids."

He smiles, and up comes another blurb: "I take great pride in keeping it real."


Chicago film critic Erik Childress takes issue with this argument for averageness. "The average Joe doesn't recommend as many movies as these people do," Childress tells The Pitch. "And even when the regular movie­goer disagrees when some highfalutin critic pans I Am Legend, more often than not they will usually go, 'It wasn't that bad' or 'That was all right.' Not 'The best movie of the year!'"

Childress tracks what he calls "blurb whores," cataloging them for CriticWatch and HollywoodBitchSlap.com. "These are nothing but hyperbole-laced phrases designed for no other reason than to either get your name in the paper or to prove that you have no discernible language skills whatsoever," he says.

Since 2003, Childress has annually named one critic "Whore of the Year." The 2007 recipient: Shawn Edwards, for more than 30 raves appearing in ads. "Compare the movies Shawn recommends to the percentage of critics who recommended them at Rotten Tomatoes, and you'll begin to understand why he is one of the most untrustworthy critics out there," Childress says.

Some samples:

Fred Claus: "One of the funniest comedies of the year!"

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium: "The most magical film of the year!"

Resident Evil: Extinction: "The most exciting movie of the year!"

Edwards agrees that his superlatives don't reflect the language of his everyday constituency. "That's movie-critic talk. Real people don't think of things in terms of 'best of the year.' But on television, you've got to be a little over-the-top. Sometimes you want to be a little shocking."

A recent example of "a little shocking": reviewing Fool's Gold, on February 8, he said, "Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson are this generation's greatest screen couple." Then, as if Childress were scowling at him right there in the studio, he half-shouted: "That's right! I said it!"

He loves movies, but not indiscriminately. In February, he complained that Fool's Gold was plotless, calling it in his review "a Romancing the Stone wanna­be." The same month, he savaged Over Her Dead Body: "Eva Longoria-Parker has gone from a desperate housewife to a desperate actress. While watching this new movie, I felt like I had fallen into a pit of quicksand, and as I was sinking to my death, I could see Eva Longoria-Parker standing over me yelling, 'Sucker!'"

His pans, too, are blurblike.

Thirty seconds after dismissing Dead Body, though, the superlatives returned and he called the Miley Cyrus Hannah Montana concert film "both the future of movies and concerts." He added, of Cyrus herself, "She's ginormous and the savior of pop music."

Shocking, maybe, but also much more careful than that Crossroads review. Notice that, for all those superlatives, he doesn't actually promise that you'll like Cyrus.


On a Thursday morning in February, Fox 4's morning show bustles with cuteness. A family of viewers models pajamas, and Kathy Quinn, reporting on the latest in a tainted-pet-food scare, actually files her pieces holding a puppy.

Leading into most stories, the anchors stress the pronoun you, making each individual viewer the focus of everything. (The Fox 4 Web site, which archives "The Screening Room," is called MyFoxKC.com.)

One story's bigger than you. It's about us.

"Many of us look to Martin Lawrence for a good laugh," Quinn says.

Paul Herdtner takes it up. "In this morning's 'Screening Room,' Fox 4 film critic Shawn Edwards talks to the star of Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins about what makes him laugh."

What follows is typical of one of Edwards' interview pieces. Cut to about 30 seconds of clips from Lawrence's movie, then to Edwards and Lawrence in Los Angeles. Both are stylish but casual, sitting in a stone-block room decorated only with a pot of flowers and a Roscoe Jenkins poster. The movie features Lawrence as a TV host spending significant time with his family for the first time in years. Edwards' first question is both gently personal and on-point with the film: "What's the difference between going home now and when you first got started in Do the Right Thing and House Party?"

Lawrence says there's always love.

More clips from the film, and then Edwards is back: "What's the one black comedy you find yourself watching time and time again that really makes you laugh?"

Lawrence chooses Richard Pryor's Which Way Is Up.

A quick follow-up from Edwards, then a clip of Lawrence being sprayed by a skunk and tumbling down a staircase. Then it's time for the wrap-up: "You've been making people laugh for a long time," Edwards says. "What makes Martin Lawrence laugh?"

Lawrence: "Stuff that's funny. I could laugh at anything if it's funny and in good taste."

There are at least three wheels spinning at once here. Lawrence's movie is getting free promotion — just over a full minute of clips in a piece clocking in at two minutes, 12 seconds. Fox 4 gets a star whose appearance it can tease all morning long. Edwards gets both a clip and a plug for his documentary.

And you, the Fox viewer — you get to know that Martin Lawrence laughs at stuff that's funny.

The cost: whatever the studio ponies up for room, board and a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles.

By his estimate, Edwards has been to Hollywood more than 300 times since he started reviewing movies for Channel 4 in 2000. During a busy month, either Edwards or Simmons might fly out every week. Edwards' online critics point to this junketeering as a conflict of interest, but Edwards says being set up in a hotel by a studio doesn't compromise his reviews. "I'm not going to risk my integrity for free food and T-shirts."

Simmons concurs: "Look at the ratings and you'll see that the junkets have absolutely no bearing on the reviews. The studios have never tried to influence us to give a good review on anything."

Edwards loves the interviews. "People ask me all the time, who have you talked to, who have you met?" Edwards says. "It's easier for me to say who I haven't. I've interviewed every major star except Jack Nicholson. He won't even talk to Mike Wallace."

Edwards' goal is to keep it light but not too light. To set movie stars at ease, to show that they're real people. "You have to make them comfortable, and if it's someone with an ego, you have to make them feel really good about themselves."

A comfortable star, of course, makes it easier for Edwards to collect clips for his various projects — a tricky task, considering he usually gets between five and 15 minutes of face time.

On the Channel 4 set, Edwards wears all black. A crease is ironed into his crisp black pants, and a stud earring glints in his ear. After the morning show wraps, he keeps checking his phone. He's expecting a call from Colin Farrell.

Eventually, the call comes. Edwards answers, stands and wanders toward the doorway. There, after a couple of seconds, he erupts at the publicist on the other end. "What? You mean I can't ask any personal questions?"

A joke. He gives her a warm laugh. Seconds later, Farrell comes on.

Edwards: "Hey, how's it going?"

A pause. Even though the call's being recorded for a Web exclusive, people on the studio floor can hear only Edwards.

Edwards: "It's going well for me, too, but I think it's going a lot better for you!"

A few minutes later, Edwards is doing what it takes to make a star comfortable: "I've been checking you out. I've seen your last couple of movies, and one thing I noticed is you seem to be perfecting your craft. You seem to be getting better and better. What's keeping you hungry?"


Remembering his childhood, Edwards smiles big and starts mentioning films and theaters: Car Wash at the Metro Plaza, Star Wars at the Glenwood. "I remember seeing Superfly at the Fairyland Drive-In," he says. "That was cool — at the time, they had two screens, and they used to show pornography. You'd turn the wrong way and see gigantic penises."

Purple Rain, from 1984, was a thrill untopped until the late '80s and early '90s, a period Edwards calls the zenith of black film. "That's when you had Do The Right Thing, Boyz in the Hood, where you were like, damn, this is how we've been living. And then you have the most realistic movie ever. I mean ever — House Party. We were like, This is what we do! This is who we know!"

In second grade, at Nelson Elementary School, he wrote a comic book about Mars, Superman and a giant robot; from this, he discovered an interest in making movies. His mother hauled him to the Plaza Library and checked out books on filmmaking. In seventh grade, he acquired a Super 8 camera from a pawnshop. Soon, he and some friends converted a little-used room at their school, Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, into a studio, where they put together a movie called Cave Man. "The claymation joint," he calls it. "We convinced the science teacher we were working on a science project, built these sets out of papier-mâché and started shooting our epic. It was about a group of cavemen who hunt for a dinosaur for a big celebration and please the volcano before it gets mad."

Lincoln also offered a TV class; Edwards worked on Check It Out, the school's news show, and he was lucky enough to use professional equipment to edit his films. Cave Man won an NAACP Act-So Award, given for academic excellence among African-American students. Other Edwards films, including one about three old men standing around at 18th and Vine claiming to have invented hip-hop, placed in contests.

He found inspiration at Lincoln, then at Van Horn High (where he landed after spending more time on movies than on schoolwork) and among the hardworking single mothers at Friendship Village Apartments, a low-income housing development at 56th Street and Swope Parkway that produced business leaders and Ivy Leaguers. After high school, he headed south to Morehouse College in Atlanta where, his sophomore year, Spike Lee was filming School Daze. "My audition was wack," he recalls. "I had a cast on my left leg because I had broken my ankle at football practice. So I had crutches and a cast, and they were looking at me like, Baby, there's not a part in this movie where you can be walking around with a cast. I say, 'I don't sing. I don't dance. I can't act. And I'm not that funny. I just want to be in the movie.' So they took my Polaroid, Spike looked at me, and then I hobbled off."

After the cast came off his leg, he went to a callback. "I got a phone call from 40 Acres and a Mule Productions, saying 'You've been selected to be in "Da Butt" scene,'" Edwards says. "I totally hate that song now because that's all I heard all spring. It took three freaking days to shoot."

Studying Lee offered further inspiration as well as confirmation of what Edwards had long suspected: He belonged behind the camera, writing and directing, instead of in front of it.

His salary for School Daze? Free food and T-shirts.

By his own admission, he had too much fun at Morehouse so, without graduating, Edwards joined the Army. This he enjoyed. "It's fun. You're in the best shape of your life. I was rich. I didn't have to pay for rent, didn't have to pay for food. I got to fire an M-16. That's the biggest adrenaline rush besides watching a really good movie, especially at night with tracer rounds."

By the late '90s, he was back in Kansas City, studying film at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and working as a journalist. He wrote for The Pitch, reviewing music and movies but also trying his hand at news reporting. He wrote what he calls "hardcore cover stories," some of which were prescient. "I did one a long time ago, like '97, that said, 'The Jazz District is dead! It's never going to happen on 18th and Vine!' I was like a psychic. And I didn't want it to be right."

While at The Pitch, he scored his first blurb. His words appeared in national ads for The Wood, a 1999 dramatic comedy about friendship and adulthood among young black men: "It's an instant classic. You'll laugh, cry and cheer."

In 2000, he joined Channel 4. There, for the first time since Check It Out at Lincoln Prep, the behind-the-scenes man was on TV. Since then, controversy has occasionally shadowed Edwards. His squabbles with the Kansas City Film Critics Circle spilled onto Internet message boards and Hearne Christopher Jr.'s column in The Star. In 2005, he either quit or was expelled from the circle, depending on whom you talk to.

"I didn't feel comfortable interacting with some of the critics," Edwards says. "I thought there was a lack of diversity and openness and a little bit of snobbery. If you didn't like what they thought was good, you weren't cool. If I say DMX delivered one of the best performances of the year, I should be heard and I shouldn't be laughed at."

Current Critics Circle head Loey Lockerby tells The Pitch, "Things with Shawn did not end well, and the circle is not comfortable discussing it."

In June 2006, those tensions disturbed even the placid waters of KCUR 89.3's Walt Bodine Show, where Edwards had occasionally joined the biweekly movie critics' roundtable.

At first, it was friendly. On the June 2 show, when Edwards mounted a typically spirited defense of the Jennifer Aniston comedy The Break-Up, University of Kansas theater and film professor John Tibbetts snipped, "OK, Shawn. Here he goes!"

Later that hour, Bodine asked the assembled critics, "What is a blockbuster?" Their answers illustrate the divide.

Tibbetts: "It has nothing to do with budget and everything to do with meeting or inciting audience expectations."

Edwards: "A blockbuster is a movie that people are anticipating. It makes probably more than $250 million at the box office domestically."

On June 30, the friendliness died. Kicking off a discussion of Waist Deep, Tibbetts said, "I know Shawn will be able to tell us all about this guy named Tyrese Gibson."

Edwards asked, "Why me?"

Tibbetts: "Because you doubtless know more about him than I do."

Edwards: "I don't know Tyrese."

Tibbetts: "I didn't, either."

Edwards: "Then why you pointing me out?"

Tibbetts: "Well — I guess it's a movie that has hip-hop music — "

Edwards: "What, because it has black people in it?"

Tibbetts: "It has a South Central L.A. street culture going — excuse me."

Edwards' behavior might have been mild in the real world, but it was a deal-breaker on Bodine's show.

"Maybe I shouldn't have done it," Edwards says now. "He said it like it was a surprise that Tyrese was in a brilliant movie, and he asked me about it like I would personally know him."

While he claims to remain on friendly terms with Bodine, Edwards isn't shy about knocking the critics heard on the show. "My biggest pet peeves are, number one: They haven't seen the movies. Get some critics on the damn show that's seen the movies!

"Number two: Get somebody who can talk about it. There are so many errors on that show.

"Number three: Get a fresh perspective. That show should be Russ Simmons and [Kansas City Star film critic] Robert Butler. You know those guys have seen the movies."

After the Tyrese discussion, Edwards wasn't invited back. For some critics, that might have been disappointing, but Edwards is bigger than local radio. He now does occasional commentary for Tell Me More, a National Public Radio show not broadcast here.


Edwards is more complex than his critics give him credit for. He seeks to speak for the regular guy, but he speaks in blurbs. He talks of the streets but also of the studios. He thinks people should relax and take movies less seriously, but he believes in movies' cultural significance so much that, through his documentaries, he is working to establish his own canon. He loves some movies — especially black movies — on their artistic merits but also because of their representational aspects. That Martin Lawrence movie he called "Totally hilarious!" offers, along with its slapstick, a warmly framed portrait of an upper-middle-class African-American family — something so rare in American entertainment, it might be worth celebrating.

Edwards also loves movies because they're big.

None of this is contradictory. It's just Hollywood, where the business of movies is to appeal to the masses, where the works worth enshrining are those that win over regular people, and where the reason it's embarrassing to have described Britney Spears as "a comet" is not because the movie stank but because it tanked.

Art is the concern of critics, and Edwards will be the first to tell you that he's something else.

Back in the Channel 4 studio, Edwards lunges forward in his chair, shouting "Speed Racer"!

He's just been asked what movies he's most looking forward to this year. A studio worker in the hall looks up. The young woman working the TV camera smiles.

"And Iron Man looks good," Edwards says. "But I am not looking forward to the new Indiana Jones at all. At all!" He slaps his hand to the arm of his chair but he looks a little sad. Concerned, maybe. "I'm telling you here first, I think the new Indiana Jones is going to be a flop."

He continues: "But I am curious to see the new Hulk. I didn't think the first Hulk was that bad, but people don't want a psychological study of their super­heroes. They just want the Hulk to get mad, turn green, tear stuff up. About four or five times in the movie: Get mad, turn green, tear stuff up. Get mad, turn green, tear stuff up, and you've got a hit!"

He's getting louder.

"I don't need to know why. I don't even need to know how he got like that. All I need to know is, if you make him mad, he's going to turn green and tear stuff up."

He rises in his chair. "That's a hit! That's $250 million! I don't need the backstory! I don't care about his daddy, his family — I don't need all that! That's what killed Spider-Man!"

The sound guy is laughing.

Really going now, his own laughter rolling under his words, Edwards starts giving advice: "You are Spider-Man! You live in New York! You can climb buildings! You can have any woman you want! You just fly her around with that web thing, and you're good for at least six weeks. You don't have to clean the dishes. You don't have to take out the trash — why you tripping on Mary Jane, Spider-Man?"

He settles down for a moment.

The studio worker is still laughing.

Is he always like this?

"Always," says the studio worker.

But Edwards is already on to something else.

"And I almost forgot! The biggest movie of the year — The Dark Knight!"

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