During his opening remarks at the 1972 Wattsax Music Festival, an all-day concert designed to celebrate black pride on the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, politician/preacher Jesse Jackson captured the moment with his typical rhyming flair: “We have shifted from ‘burn, baby, burn’ to ‘learn, baby, learn.’” In that spirit, the festival—commemorated in this excellent documentary, which was released a year after the event took place—featured uplifting messages about community, love, and respect. And yet Wattstax director Mel Stuart also widened his focus to address some of the issues that provoked the Watts riots in the first place. At regular intervals during the movie, Stuart cuts to incendiary funnyman Richard Pryor providing irreverent comedy, as well as thoughtful commentary. (Pryor’s material was filmed after the concert.) For instance, Pryor does several hard-hitting minutes on the eternal quandary of the LAPD’s trigger-happy attitude toward black suspects.
These combative moments mesh surprisingly well with such soothing scenes as the Staple Singers performing “Respect Yourself” onstage at the Los Angeles Coliseum during the festival. Combined with Stuart’s documentary footage of everyday life in Watts—much of which is cleverly juxtaposed with music—all of the elements coalesce into a mosaic about race in America circa the early ’70s. In fact, many of the film’s best scenes feature ordinary men and women speaking casually—but passionately—about the indignities they suffer. In one memorable sequence, several men recall the first time they were called “niggers,” pointedly describing the explanations their parents offered when asked about the hateful word. (One of the man-on-the-street interviewees is actor Ted Lange, who later played the bartender on The Love Boat.)
Yet the music, of course, is the main attraction. Since the concert was sponsored by Stax Records, many icons of ’70s black music—from James Brown to the entire Motown roster—are conspicuously absent. Nonetheless, the onstage lineup makes for a varied and vibrant mix. The Bar-Kays tear through their swaggering funk number “Son of Shaft,” Luther Ingram sings a heartfelt “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right,” Jimmy Jones represents the gospel genre with “Someone Greater Than I,” Albert King lays down two slinky Delta blues numbers, and Rufus Thomas gets the crowd going with his novelty number “Do the Funky Chicken.” Funkmaster General Issac Hayes closes the evening with an epic reading of his Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft,” as well as the softer number “Soulsville,” which suits the peace-and-love mood of the event. (As one concertgoer says succinctly when asked for his reaction: “Like, shit, the whole thing is going on.”)
Thanks to Stuart’s holistic approach to depicting the festival and its larger context, thanks to the great tunes from Stax artists, and thanks to remarkable editing by David Blewitt, David Newhouse, and Robert K. Lambert, a unique historical moment was preserved in a suitably unique fashion.
Wattstax: RIGHT ON