I just saw Wattstax for the very first time the other night. I was really struck by it’s honesty and grit, but what really stood out was some of the more vocal figures that share their commentary along the way. I’ll get to them in a minute, but first the film itself.Wattstax for the uninitiated was a concert held at The LA Coliseum to commemorate the Watts riots, and to inject a sense of well being into the neighborhood. This alone is remarkable given that we rarely if ever see a truly “black” experience of this scale for a purely “black” neighborhood. While falling short of being “The Black Woodstock” Wattstax nonetheless conveys a sense of community, togetherness and even possibility. The music is deeply soulful, ranging from the neo-gospel sounds of The Staple Singers, to the wild and witty funk of Rufus Thomas, working up the crowd with his classic, “Funky Chicken.”
There’s a great scene where the crowd is threatening to pour onto the field during Thomases first number. This, in and of itself is a pretty interesting phenomenon. If this even were to be held today, every square inch of the venue would be filled, from the field to the seats in the stands and yet there was quarter of a football field, that’s roughly 20,000 sq ft of available space! Even more remarkable was how well the crowd behaved and remained mostly in the stands. But when Thomas breaks into his funky chicken, with a fairly direct prompt, they pour onto the field, then Thomas remarkably is able to talk them back into the stands! There’s no way that would be able to happen today. “Mo powa to the folks and let’s go to the stands.” “It might be a little slow, but you just gotta go.” It turns into a piece of unintentional theater as Thomas plays with a “brother” who won’t leave the field.Thomas himself is a pretty unique character. Born in 1917, he was nearly sixty when he took the stage at Wattstax and held the stage with a force and enough funk for a man half his age.
Isaac Hayes closes out the movie and the concert. Hayes is deep into his “Black Moses” persona and gets a rousing welcome courtesy the MC, the silver tongued Jesse Jackson. Hayes takes the stage in robes and mirrored shades, then drops them to reveal loose fitting vest made out of gold chains. The irony of his wardrobe choice is that according to my ex-boss at emusic, Hayes would play out a sexual psychodrama where he would have multiple white women dressed up in costumes from the pre-civil war era. He would be lightly bound in chains while the women would insult him, call him the dreaded “n-word” while he would slowly free himself from the chains, whereupon he would take them as part of a consensual ritual of sexual freedom and black power. In the light of this shadowy urban legend, I thought that Hayes’ fashion of choice was rather revealing.He then busts out a tight version of “Shaft.” In addition to showcasing some stellar R&B, the film also serves as a documentary of the state of black culture through a series of interviews with a number of men and women, many of whom are anonymous, save a few notable exceptions.
Ted Lange is the son of Gerri Lange, a longtime newscaster and educator in The Bay Area. Lange comes off as slightly militant at times, but mostly gives off the vibe of a streetwise sage with plenty of insight into the black experience. Lange would later straighten out any kinks in his perspective as he would eventually land the role of the avuncular, yet soulful Isaac as the bartender of The Love Boat. While it might be unfair to single out Lange as a symbolic sellout, the contrast between his Wattstax persona and his Isaac character is almost schizophrenic. He had a short transition as the jive talking Junior in “That’s My Mama” but the transformation of Lange from social critic to “safe,” second banana was complete when “The Loveboat” set sail.
Pryor is shown doing routines from his stand up act. This is before Pryor had broken through the color line as a comedian that would appeal to multi-racial crowds. This was pure Pryor, not haunted by his breakthrough and success, his characters were fresh and his mocking of square, white, behavior was dead on and fresh. Pryor’s insights wouldn’t change much from Wattstax, his paranoia and bank account would grow proportionately in relations to his success, which would push him farther from the realness of interaction, to a psychological edge where humor was an elusive phantom that Pryor stopped chasing in favor of being cast as cartoonish characters in films like “The Toy” and “Brewsters Millions.” Much like Lange, Pryor would be a victim of his own success, rewarded for a portrayal of realness, to the point where “soul” becomes a commodity that’s bartered for popularity, wealth and fame.>
JJ is the MC of Wattstax and I think it’s a seminal moment in many ways for him. He’s truly separating himself from MLK’s shadow and is introducing some of the hippest black artists of the day, while sermonizing and prosletyzing to the masses. But much like Pryor and Lange to a lesser extent, Jackson peaked when he flirted with the presidency and the rise of his rainbow coalition. In many ways, Barack Obama is Jesse Jackson 2.0, crashing through to the vox populi in a way that a much “blacker” Jackson was never enabled to do. Jackson has been accused of being a corporate shakedown artist and cause chaser along with the likes of Al Sharpton, but the one moment when Jackson could have redeemed himself in the eyes of his doubters was during the aftermath of the 2004 election when he was hot on the trail of voter fraud in Ohio, when his supposedly democratic brethren, including the Skull and Bones buddy of GW, John Kerry distanced themselves from Jackson’s efforts for a recount and accounting of the original votes.Jackson remains a powerful figure when it comes to mobilizing numbers of his Rainbow Coaliton for boycotts (see Don Imus), but he came nowhere near the promise that his very public pulpit at Wattstax projected.It’s in these three men, profiled and featured at length in Wattstax that the experience of black culture is reflected; success and integration with compromise, a new level of disenfranchisement and ultimately the inability to effect change at the highest level of governance.
Does that negate their efforts and their success? The answer would be “no” on a personal level. However as a representation of the collective challenge that black culture faced on the backside of Wattstax, they are clearly impotent in the face of the machine, grinding the flesh of all colors, not just black.
I would highly recommend Wattstax as it’s a vibrant testament to the music, people and spirit of the urban experience circa 1973, pre-disco, pre-hip hop, pre-crack, one nation under a groove.