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Black Films of the 1970s Receive Closer Look in MoAD Lecture Series

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Four young Black people in caps smirk and smile at camera
A still from the 1975 film 'Cooley High' with Pooter (Corin Rogers), Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs). (Getty Images)

Dr. Artel Great’s first exposure to the Museum of the African Diaspora came from a film. The scholar and filmmaker, who now teaches at San Francisco State in the school of cinema, spotted the institution in Barry Jenkins’ 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy — it’s one of the many stops a Black couple makes in their slow, conversation-filled journey across San Francisco after a one-night stand.

“[Jenkins] shoots an entire sequence in MoAD,” Great recalls. “I remember encountering this film many, many years ago and being blown away not only by these Black characters who reminded me of people that I knew, but then they spent their time, you know, going to museums. And I’m like, ‘Wow, this is the first time that I can recall seeing people who I know or felt like I knew on the screen.’”

Now, in a sort of cosmic fulfillment of that moment, Great is MoAD’s first cultural critic-in-residence. He knows that film can be a gateway to making all sorts of connections — personal connections, yes, but also to bigger ideas about history, politics, sports, fashion and economics.

To launch his residency at MoAD, Great has organized four weeks of virtual lectures titled “SOUL CINEMA: 1970s Black Film and Culture,” beginning Jan. 18, 7–8:30 p.m. One goal, Great says, is to expose audiences to some of the underappreciated films of the decade, which tends to be known as an era of Hollywood Blaxploitation movies and little else.

Black-and-white image of a white woman talking to a Black man in a subway car, people in background
A promotional image from 1967’s ‘Dutchman,’ with actors Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Jr. (Continental/Getty Images)

Each lecture will use a film as a starting point for a larger conversation, beginning with the 1967 drama Dutchman (an adaptation of Amiri Baraka’s play) and the Black Arts Movement. The series continues with lectures on Cooley High (1975), Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (a documentary from 2012) and Claudine (1974). Great’s lectures will include clips, but he encourages participants to seek out the films and watch them ahead of time.

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And lest you think this will be a series of staid talks, with Great lecturing into the void of the internet, one need only look to his enthusiasm to get a sense of what’s in store. “This period is so compelling,” he says, “it really played, in my opinion, a vital role in shaping our current world and our current conditions in ways that we don’t recognize or think about.” He points to similarities between the ’70s and today, including a sense of political paranoia and a “deep, deep distrust of governmental politics.”

On top of that, he welcomes audience participation, saying, “That’s when the sparks fly.” During a lecture series he held at MoAD last year, both he and the museum noted the lively chat window, which he’s able to incorporate on the fly into his talk, facilitating a type of audience participation that’s so rare in virtual settings. At the end of each “SOUL CINEMA” session, there will also be a Q&A.

For Great, the MoAD residency is a welcome opportunity to step outside the bounds of academia. “Teaching in predominantly white institutions kind of incarcerates the knowledge that I have been building for so long,” he says, “and it precludes it from reaching the people who may be its intended audience.”

Other events planned for Great’s residency include a symposium tied to the publication of his first book, a collection of essays edited with Ed Guerrero titled Black Cinema & Visual Culture: Art and Politics in the 21st Century. And he’s looking forward to bringing essay contributors, luminaries and “surprise artists” into conversation at the museum, all in service of his mission: to augment and amplify Black American and African diasporic histories.

‘SOUL CINEMA: 1970s Black Film and Culture’ takes place on Wednesdays, 7–8:30 p.m., Jan. 18–Feb. 8 via Zoom. Registration is required. Details here.

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