Dr. Artel Great revives 70s Black cinema with emphasis on Black consciousness.
by People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, Oakland Bureau Chief
The Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) has recently announced its new Cultural Critic in Residence, Dr. Artel Great, who recently debuted a film series, called “Soul Cinema: 1970s Black Film and Culture,” where he examined Black cinema from the 70s, specifically the classic films “The Dutchman,” “Cooley High,” “Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners” and “Claudine.”
Dr. Artel Great is the George and Judy Marcus Endowed Chair in African American Cinema Studies and an Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at San Francisco State University. He is just starting his two year tenure at MOAD, and is planning on releasing his first book with Black film scholar Ed Guerrero titled “Black Cinema & Visual Culture: Art and Politics in the 21st Century,” soon.
Check out this exclusive interview with Dr. Artel Great in this exclusive interview as we talk Black 70s cinema.
JR Valrey: How did you get into film initially? What kept you interested in the film? How did becoming a filmmaker change your perception of film?
Dr. Artel Great: My journey in film is rather eventful and circuitous. Movies played a prominent role in my family life growing up in Chicago. However, movies were intangible. Something we watched, not something that one aspired to be a part of. I didn’t know anyone in the film industry.
But when I graduated high school at sixteen, within months I was co-starring in two major Hollywood films (Light it Up and Save the Last Dance). So, I went straight from high school to the pros, so to speak.
When “Save the Last Dance” premiered, it was a smash hit. Number one at the box office for two weeks in a row. That changed my life. The following month I moved to Los Angeles to pursue film full time.
Within six months, I landed my first starring role and won my first Independent Spirit Award nomination. But I quickly noticed that the more successful I became, there were unspoken limitations on Black actors and actresses in Hollywood.
There seemed to be an emphasis on casting Black performers in regressive roles that were antithetical to my moral compass. A movie director I worked with mentioned that I should think about going to film school. So, I enrolled in film school at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and later graduated as the first Black valedictorian in the program’s history. I was omnivorous in my pursuit of this specialized knowledge.
At UCLA, I took a class on Black American cinema. That was the first time I understood cinema studies as a discipline. I earned my B.A. and M.A. degrees in a total of four years and was number one in my class each time I graduated. From there, I decided to earn my PhD at NYU Tisch five years later. So, I never actually set out to become a filmmaker and film scholar. However, they both found me in a sense.
JR Valrey: What generally interests you about Black filmmaking in the 70s?
Dr. Artel Great: My primary interest in 1970s Black cinema lies in its expansiveness and the overt on-screen emphasis on the cultural affirmation of Black people. I love the steps toward autonomy that were taken by Black film artists during this era, like Melvin Van Peebles and Ivan Dixon.
There was a deep sense of community during this period that was connected to fashion, music, politics and to cinema. It was all centered around the aim of creating Black art for Black people as a means to awaken Black consciousness and achieve social and political liberation.
JR Valrey: How did you become a film critic? And why is a Black film critic that examines Black movies, important in a racist society like the one we live in in the U.S.?
Dr. Artel Great: I am a film scholar and historian, rather than a film critic. A film critic writes reviews of movies, etc. That’s not my interest. I am, however, a cultural critic who uses film as a launching pad to address the myriad links between art and politics in this country.
I really approach my work as a form of creative and intellectual activism in order to amplify issues that are both urgent and important to the needs of Black people across all our communities regarding social, political and economic justice. This is important because movies represent a repository of America’s obsession with race, and it holds many critical insights into the lies we are told in this country about how cinema and race have evolved.
Moreover, my work brings to light the brilliant contributions of the many Black cinema artists who have helped build the American film industry but have been deliberately ignored. The truth is that Black filmmakers helped build the US film industry; for instance, Black women were innovators of independent moving image distribution networks and Black film studios predating Hollywood studios.
JR Valrey: What are the four movies that you curated to watch and review? What is interesting about each of them?
Dr. Artel Great: “Dutchman”, “Cooley High”, “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners”, and “Claudine”. “Dutchman”, represents the spirit of rebellion of the Black Arts Movement and the peculiar social conditions faced by Black men in this country.
“Cooley High” looks at Black masculinity and coming of age in a way that is both fun and socially poignant, as the main characters seek a broad horizon beyond the confines of their immediate environment.
Trust has in many regards been broken, as many Black filmmakers are now willing to participate in anti-Black filmmaking practices, simply for the chance to cash in on a quick buck.
“Free Angela”, explores the important legacy of Angela Davis and her contribution to the Black Power movement and to the advancement of Black radical feminist thought. And “Claudine” is a key example of the social issues and forces facing Black women, families and the working class, depicting this country’s persistent assault on the Black family structure.
JR Valrey: How would you compare the Black filmmaking of today to the Black film making of the 70s?
Dr. Artel Great: When considering the political and social distance from 1970s Black cinema to today, the circumstances and advancements have dramatically regressed. The spirit of defiance has evaporated, the sense of community is non-existent and has been replaced with a mentality of racial capitalism.
One cannot underestimate the climate of fear that has been created in our communities as a result of stringent U.S repression and the assassination of Black leaders. The relationship between Black filmmakers and Black audiences is one that is in need of repair. Trust has in many regards been broken, as many Black filmmakers are now willing to participate in anti-Black filmmaking practices, simply for the chance to cash in on a quick buck.
JR Valrey: Why do the Black movies of the 70s like “Claudine,” “Cooley High,” “Superfly,” “Cleopatra Jones,” “Foxy Brown,” “The Mack,” and so on, still have a cultural relevance in today’s Black society?
Dr. Artel Great: Because not much social and political distance has been traveled since those films first came on the scene. The same issues and forces those films represent, sadly, remain the same issues and forces Black people continue to deal with in this country. Poverty, racism, police violence, all still represent daily realities in many of our communities.
JR Valrey: How did characters in Black made films differ from the Black characters in white made films at the time? Does this dynamic still exist within cinema in the U.S.?
Dr. Artel Great: Black characters in Black films of the 1970s tended to be imbued with a sense of social responsibility. There was a social depth that the characters expressed on-screen that connected with the implicit rhythms of Black communities. There was a need and desire to represent Black culture and to move the needle towards liberation.
Whereas in white films, Black characters tended to be empty of real social depth, and appeared on screen as caricatures that were manufactured in the white social imagination.
JR Valrey: What kind of events are going to come out of your two year residency at MOAD?
Dr. Artel Great: Other events planned for the residency include a symposium following the publication of my first book, a collection of essays edited with fellow Black film scholar Ed Guerrero titled “Black Cinema & Visual Culture: Art and Politics in the 21st Century.”
I’ll also be producing insightful panels with writers, directors, cinematographers, and scholars. And I’m looking forward to bringing other Black cultural luminaries and “surprise artists” into conversation at the museum to amplify Black American and African diasporic histories.
JR Valrey: How could people keep up with you online?
Dr. Artel Great: Instagram: @dr.artelgreat
Twitter & FB: @DrArtelGreat
JR Valrey, The People’s Minister of Information, is the Oakland Bureau Chief for the SF Bay View. He is also the instructor for The SF Bay View Community Journalism Program.EXCERPT: Listen to a cultural critic using film as a launching pad to address the myriad links between art and politics in this country.
The post Dr. Artel Great revives 70s Black cinema with emphasis on Black consciousness. appeared first on San Francisco Bay View.
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