Artel Great is an actor, poet, screenwriter, director, lecturer and technology innovator. His film credits include The Soloist, Heavens Fall, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Dahmer, Save The Last Dance and Light It Up among others. Artel’s resume is quite extensive and his current vision is the Project Catalyst initiative, a media distribution network created as a platform for multi-cultural media and music creators. A way of leveling the playing field for artists that would, otherwise, have little to no voice or visibility in today’s entertainment industry. Taking artistic and personal risks to advance social justice in profound and visionary ways, has led to Artel becoming known as one of the brightest young media innovators in America.
He has been awarded the 2014 Cinema Research Institute Fellowship for innovation in the film and media industry.
Artel's work has been described as “multilayered” by the New York Times, “warm, outgoing, direct, funny and endearing” by the LA Times and “virtuoso” by the LA Weekly, and he is also the winner of a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination. He has performed in improv troupes at the renowned Second City Chicago, and is the winner of an NAACP ACT-SO award for Poetry.
Artel graduated summa cum laude as the first Black valedictorian at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), School of Theater, Film & Television, where he also earned a Master's degree in Cinema & Media Studies. Artel is an adjunct Professor of film history at New York University, Tisch School of Arts, where he is a Ph.D candidate in Cinema Studies.
I’d like to first touch on your family background. Brothers and sisters what part of Chicago you are from and so forth. I grew up in Chicago. I was born on the west side. Both my mother’s and father’s sides of their families moved to Chicago in 1957. Interesting because they were part of the second wave of the Great Migration of southern Black folks from the South to the North. We lived on the Westside for a while until my family moved to the South side. That was kind of like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire in a way, but it was her way of trying to be upwardly mobile and provide that opportunity for us. So I grew up in between the west side and the south side of Chicago. We would go back and forth every week because we were the only family members living on the south side after we left the west side.
What about family? Do you have brothers and sisters? What is your family makeup? Yes, I have one brother and he is five years older than I am.
You are so accomplished. Are your parents scholars? What was the family environment from that vantage point?
No not at all. My father never went to college. In fact, my mother was the first person in my family to graduate from college. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University. So I would be the second person after that. Thoughts of college were not really a part of our day to day. My parents are good working class folks. My father is real good with his hands, you know. He works as a carpenter and electrician that kind of thing. My mother works in corporate America as an executive assistant.
What lead you to the creative path to get into acting and performance art type of into that field?
I was involved in a school play at four years old, and I stole the show. People were coming up to my mother afterwards really elated, so she nurtured that in me. I started participating in plays in our community and at church and really begin exploring those ideas. Art and culture was something that my mom made sure she included in our lives. We went to plays and museums and we had a greater perspective outside of the things that may not have been as positive in terms of where we physically resided. Chicago is a place that's rich in culture, and art and history.
What was your path to UCLA?
I graduated high school when I was 16 years old. I already knew who I was and what I desired to do. I was ready to get into the world and actually pursue it. Almost immediately I was presented with opportunities that I was able to capitalize on in a positive way. After working on several films in the Hollywood studio system as an actor I begin to realize there was so much about film that I didn’t know.
I did know that certain celebrities were making $20M per movie and I clearly remember thinking "Who is the person who's cutting those $20M checks?” So there was another world that I didn’t understand. And after I won the Spirit Award nomination as an actor, producers were sending me scripts and offers for roles that I felt didn’t represent who I was, what I desired to represent, or the legacy I desired to create. I decided I needed to figure out a way to express my own ideas. When I was coming up in Chicago I didn’t know there was such a thing as film school. Back then movies were something you went to see, it wasn’t something you did. So going to UCLA film school was kind of a circuitous path for me as it happened after I had established a career in the Hollywood system.
So you weren’t one of those kids running around with their little crappy cameras filming everything and everyone around you? Getting on everybody’s nerves?
No not at all. We didn’t have any movie cameras. I wish we did because my imagination was out of this world. Still is actually. Back then we were basically surviving. Trying to make it. We were a close knit family, a loving family when I was coming up. We didn’t have a lot of luxuries. I do remember us getting a computer though; a Commodore 64 that we hooked up to the TV. That was a big deal, but no movie camera.
What was the college experience like for you?
What I noticed right away was that the place was rather segregated. There was only one other Black person in the film program. Right away, I had to consider what type of work I wanted to create because there was this sort of chasm that existed. Should I focus on Black people? Should I create work that’s focused on us or should I create work to just try to fit in? It’s like the ‘burden of representation’ that James Baldwin talked about.
I got over that pretty quickly thinking “I’m here for a reason. They chose me to be here so I’m gonna express what I feel passionate about.” I dove into work and I worked on some student projects, I directed a couple of short films. I wanted to concentrate on writing as well as directing so I wrote four or five screenplays during this time. I was creating for the sake of creating. I directed a few projects outside of school and I was pioneering in the web series world at that time… I was immersed in culture and I was actually seeking to do as much as I could.
So, you were soaking up as much experience as possible?
Yes. Both in production and intellectually. I was taking as many classes as possible. A full time load is 12 units. The max you could take was 18 units. I petitioned the University to allow me to take more and they did. I was taking 24 units a quarter, which was purely insane. And I don’t necessarily recommend that for folks but I was on a mission, and I wanted to gain as much as I could and really push myself to see what I could produce.
I’ve read up on the new distribution movement but, in your words, tell me about Project Catalyst, the multi-media distribution platform.
Project Catalyst is something that was born a long time ago. It’s always been on my mind. I started thinking about distribution as a final frontier for Black folks. Probably around the year 2000 Black filmmakers were being represented at a larger scale than we are now. There were Black production companies, Black stars, in terms of actors and actresses, but no distribution. I saw that distribution was the component that could be the tipping point to really push us in the direction of self-reliance and independence. As opposed to being dependent on a system that consistently chooses to devalue us. Since the inception of cinema the presence of Blackness has been contained and restricted to the margins of the film frame.
For me distribution is very important for our future in terms of cinema and media. Project Catalyst came on the heels of opportunities I've been afforded. I began to more deeply engage in the idea of a business model to really explore and expand multicultural distribution. The goal is to create a media delivery system so creative folks who are doing really amazing work in our culture, could have a space to create and distribute their work without compromise. A lot times with mainstream media, Black creatives don’t have the opportunity to call their own shots. It’s always about compromise with the gatekeepers who say what they can and cannot create. Project Catalyst is a place where I can make a positive contribution to my community by offering access to better entertainment options. We've already launched an app for mobile devices that allows streaming of movies and media directly to our consumers. Project Catalyst's content comes from submissions from a wide variety of multicultural creative minds. We showcase works that are humanistic and fresh that were created by diverse image-makers on their terms.
As far as content, how will submissions be vetted and on what criteria?
Project Catalyst is curated by myself and my team here in New York. Artists and content creators can submit their work through our website or through the Project Catalyst app itself. It goes through several processes. Our initial screening team will review submissions and compile a list of things I should take a look at. We’ll usually sit and have discussions about it as a sort of panel. We really want to promote and showcase works that represent a more humanistic view of our culture. A lot of times we see things created about Black culture by the media that are caricatures and don’t really represent the true nature of who we really are. The Project Catalyst team desires to provide a broad spectrum of artistry that represents our true spirit and diversity.
I take it the music content will be held to the same standard? You know, we were just talking about the statements made by hip hop acts old Jungle Brothers and Public Enemy before we got started.
Well, you and I relate to a similar era where there was much more variety and there was more depth in music. It’s crazy that at the turn of the millennium we got into all this social unrest, political turmoil, or war and all of this but the music wasn’t reflecting anything that was going on in the world. It just blew me away. I mean, how could we be going through what we’re going through and then turn on the radio and everything is ratchet? Music used to be the voice of the people and there was a social discourse that was going on. Artists used music as a platform to actually speak to our people. So we want to see some of that come back. I don't think we will try to turn back the hands of time but we need to move forward from what we hear these days. It's beyond time to upgrade and Project Catalyst will be instrumental in ensuring that happens.
I hope so. I think the curent music trends are so bad that even the crowd that they are targeting is beginning to see the heavy-handed pandering to the illest elements in ANY culture, not just Black. And it's redudant. So I think the hip-hop audience is primed for something different. Hopefully something positive.
Part of this new trend stems from the constraint of being an artist in a system designed to marginalize. And what I mean by that is commercial rap and commercial music are not interested in the survival of our community but, in my opinion, their interest is in the bottom line and starving artists are getting caught up. A lot of times what ends up happening is people just want to make it and not necessarily make a difference. How can a young artist make a difference when there’s no relatable precedent for it in their lifetime? These folks want to be a part of a system that doesn’t even LIKE them. How can we go through what we’re going through collectively and the music and arts and culture that’s being reflected back to us doesn’t even express what we go through on a day to day basis?
I'm anxious to see this project work it's way to success. It is something desparately needed to service both, multi-cultural creatives and a disserviced consumer community. The best is yet to come from Artel Great and the Positive Catalyst team.
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