Believe it or not, Justin Chang ’04 traces the dawn of his film criticism career back to Titanic.
“The year 1997 is kind of funny,” he says. “There was [Atom Egoyan’s] The Sweet Hereafter, and then there was Titanic. Here was a small, low-budget, intimate art film and this massive commercial behemoth—and I liked both movies. I still do. But it was an interesting thing to wrap my head around: What makes both of them good? You come to realize that there’s a huge plurality of opinions out there, and arguing is a lot of the fun.”
You come to realize that there’s a huge plurality of opinions out there, and arguing is a lot of the fun.Justin Chang
Chang, 33, grew up in Orange County. His mom was a medical technologist for Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, and his late father—an aerospace engineer—passed down a passion for movies. “He just really loved Old Hollywood,” Chang says. “He told me about what a great movie The Bicycle Thief was, when I was probably too young to even appreciate it.”
Chang’s first love was writing, and he enrolled in USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s print journalism program. He logged hours at the Daily Trojan, and in the USC School of Cinematic Arts took a course in film criticism from his future colleague Kenneth Turan.
“Every week we’d write a film review, and it was usually whatever Kenny was reviewing that week,” Chang says. “I grew up reading the Los Angeles Times, and Kenny was one of the first critics I ever read. I feel like he was a mentor, just in terms of my reading him and just loving his work and his eye.”
Chang published his first film review during college (of Lars von Trier’s Dogville, which he gave a thumbs up) as a freelancer for the Orange County Register. A week after graduation, he started an internship at Variety and within six months he was hired as an editorial assistant. He moved up to chief film critic, earning honors with the inaugural Roger Ebert Award for diversity in film journalism from the African American Film Critics Association. Last year, he migrated to the Los Angeles Times to review films—alongside Turan—for a broader audience. He also contributes to NPR’s “Fresh Air Weekend” and “FilmWeek.”
Chang credits USC’s InterVarsity Trojan Christian Fellowship for sparking an interest in the complex issues that shape our society and culture. (The group is also where Chang met his wife, Lameese Elqura Chang ’04, with whom he has a daughter.) “InterVarsity focused on things that I think are really important right now,” he says, “in terms of justice issues, poverty, racism. When I was viewing those side by side [with film reviews] at the time, I don’t think I saw how those things intersected until, frankly, maybe even a few years ago. But insofar as movies are absolutely a screen onto which we project what’s going on in the culture … movies are just a portal to writing about everything else.”