Directed by Mel Stuart
**** (four stars)
For reasons I will never understand, I have to admit to having an uncontrollable urge to flip cable channels very late on weekend nights before heading to bed. Perhaps it is a bit of a last hurrah for me but there’s just this fascination I have with seeing if there’s something just off the beaten path that may give me one more surprise in those wee hours. On one night at the beginning of this month, I stumbled across a brief promo on Centric, the African-American themed cable channel, announcing and celebrating the entirety of June as Black Music Month. While the advertisement lasted perhaps less than one minute, the amount of inspiration it provided to me has been priceless.
As some of you have already known abut me, and now for those who previously have not, I had the blessing of spending my four years of college working as a DJ on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus radio station WLHA-FM. It was indeed a childhood fantasy fulfilled and I have often wished that I could return to that DJ booth and spin tunes deeply into the days and nights for listeners everywhere, hopefully weaving a musical spell that enraptured. On my Facebook page, I have (sort of) accomplished that very wish by occasionally posting songs linked from You Tube. This month, and taking my cue from Centric, I wanted to house my own tribute to Black musicians, singers and songwriters throughout the month using the handle of WSPC as my mythical radio station’s call letters. This enterprise has been a supreme blast for me and has also blossomed in ways I had not imagined. Originally, I had planned to post perhaps one or two or maybe even three songs a day for the month but as one song inspirationally leads to the next, the one to three song limit was tossed from the proverbial window. At this time, and with five days remaining, I have posted over 200 pieces of music featuring and celebrating Black artists throughout a variety of musical genres and the overall response, and subsequent conversations, have been enlightening and uplifting.
And then, lightning struck again…
Recently, I found myself in my “archives” digging out a
I owned but never really found the time to devote to it properly as my
cinematic spirit just wasn’t in the mood before. The film in question is the
critically acclaimed documentary from Director Mel Stuart entitled “Wattstax,”
which focuses on the 1972 Wattstax Music Festival organized by, and starring
many acts from, the legendary Stax music label. Often compared with and
referred to as “the Black Woodstock,” I feel this is an unfair description that
is as profoundly unobservant as it is lazy. On the real, “Wattstax” is exactly
and powerfully as advertised: “A Soulful Expression of the Black Experience.”
The film is a musical, socio-political event that provides everyone who chooses
to enter a wonderful window into a vibrant piece of the African-American
community with a treasure trove of hopes, plights, frustrations, and musings
all on display. If you live near a video store, head out to it and rent it. If
you belong to Netflix, then place this film into your ever-expanding queue. The
30th anniversary, fully remastered DVD
looks gorgeous and even features not one but two commentary tracks, one with Stuart and the other with Public
Enemy’s Chuck D. "Wattstax" is a very special film that should not be ignored.
After a brief introduction from none other than Richard Pryor, “Wattstax” opens with The Dramatics “What You See Is What You Get,” as Stuart presents us with pulsating visions of what Isaac Hayes calls “Soulsville,” a selection he performs during the film’s climax. We see the people of the community, the fashions and natural hairstyles of the day set alongside the barbershops, the churches, the record stores, restaurants and other local businesses. Regardless of the fact that this film takes place in
, I was immediately struck with vivid memories
of my own upbringing in Los
from moment to moment, I felt as if I was looking into a window of my own past.
Soon those sunshine images of the low income
community are intercut with imagery of the 1965 Watts riots (or “rebellion,” as the people of Watts
recall the event). “Wattstax” then finds the Watts community during the seventh
annual Festival, at which the concert, to be held at the Los Angeles Memorial
Coliseum on August 20, 1972, serves as the event’s culmination as well as commemoration
of communal togetherness. With performances from ranging from The Staple
Singers to Albert King to The Bar Kays and the climactic powerhouse of “Black
Moses” himself, Mr. Isaac Hayes, you will be treated to some of the very finest
of soul, gospel and rhythm and blues has to offer. But, the music exists as a
catalyst for a community’s continued healing, pride strengthening, deep
contemplation and ever evolving self-awareness. For the film, the music exists
as connective tissue between the candid conversations and interviews with every
day people, the very voices that are almost never, ever heard on a large scale…especially
on a movie screen.
What made “Wattstax” resonate so powerfully with me is that the film is just so much more than a concert film. This is a film where my lifelong interests in film, art, music, journalism, plus a newfound awakening and consciousness with the country’s socio-political landscape have all converged magnificently. Much like Director Michel Gondry’s outstanding documentary, “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (2006), this is a film about an entire community and for that matter, an entire race. “Wattstax” is essentially an oral history of the African-American experience that just happens to be juxtaposed and augmented with tremendous music. The music may bring you in but the commentary and conversations between the everyday people of
and peppered with the brutal racial/political comedy of Richard Pryor, are
truly electrifying. The film contains no narration and never tells you what to
think or feel. Stuart just films and presents and allows the hearts, minds and
spirits of the people of Watts to speak and sing loudly.
How fascinating it was to watch this movie in 2012, and truly acknowledge the sad wake up call that although an African-American man currently sits as President of the United States, not that much has truly changed within the low income areas of the Black communities around the country, despite some people’s views that we now live in a post-racial society. Most importantly, the interpersonal and individual conflicts within the Black community are essentially the same as they were in 1972. “Wattstax” explores the ever-shifting self-perceptions of who we are, what we are able to be and where we fit within a Caucasian society.
“Wattstax” is also an exploration of language concerning the labels we place upon ourselves. Just listen to how many of the interview subjects deal with addressing themselves and others as “Negroes,” “Colored,” “Black” and even “niggers.” In fact, just think about how the prevalent usage of the word “nigger” existed in 1972 and compare it to the (largely) cartoon hip-hop world of 2012. Even in the segments featuring Richard Pryor’s comedy, where he uses the word frequently, “Wattstax” immediately took me back to the time when I saw his concert film “Richard Pryor: Live On the Sunset Strip” (1982) on opening night in a predominantly African American movie theater. During a sequence where Pryor detailed a trip he had taken to Africa, he shared how he would never, ever use the word “nigger” to describe Black people any longer. The wave of emotion in that movie theater was undeniably powerful, even as I sat at the age of 13. I am detailing that cinematic memory to illustrate a point about “Wattstax.” This film is not one that solely exists as a time capsule. It feels so up to the minute about being Black in
as we can easily look to the past and ponder just how far we have traveled
collectively and individually. The language contained in “Wattstax,” while
often extremely harsh, displays a tremendous element in our continued
But then there is the concert, which in and of itself was a grand political statement as much as it also served as entertainment. The six-hour event, attended by over 100,000 African Americans, where all of the security guards and police were African Americans, and the security police inside the stadium were all unarmed. Not even one incident of violence occurred. Just this fact alone is a powerful political statement in a film loaded with them.
Just witness the stunning, matter-of-fact moment where soul singer Kim Weston performs the National Anthem and absolutely no one rises to their feet and places their right hands over their hearts. Yet, when Weston performs “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” forever known as “The Black National Anthem,” the stadium rises to its feet, sings alongside Weston and raises a right fist into the air in solidarity.
And then there is the formidable presence of Rev. Jesse Jackson who provides the stirring invocation to the concert which concludes with the eternal chant of Black pride and power, “I am SOMEBODY!! I am SOMEBODY!! I may be poor. But, I am SOMEBODY!! I must be respected! I must be protected! I am SOMEBODY!!” I’m telling you, dear readers, when you watch that sequence it feels as if the heavens will part due to the sheer power of Rev Jackson’s words and delivery. And on a more personal note, those words have existed as part of the iconography of my life as those particular words from Rev. Jesse Jackson permeated the house in which I grew up as my Mother listened to the Operation P.U.S.H. radio broadcasts religiously every Saturday morning, while I valiantly attempted to watch my cartoons. Through osmosis, the seeds, which contained a certain sense of self-affirmation and political worldview, were planted and seeing this invocation forced me to reflect in ways that I had not anticipated.
But of course, in “Wattstax,” music is the central element. In addition to existing as a celebratory film featuring the art and artistry of African-American music, the film is crucially about how the power of music is able to bring communities together in healing, pride, communication, negotiation and the sublime art of shared conversation and existence. And make no mistake, “Wattstax” is loaded with one terrific musical performance after another.
In addition to those great sequences with The Bar Kays and Isaac Hayes, I especially loved The Emotions performing “Peace Be Still” set during a church sequence that begins as a slow burn and builds to a veritable roof raiser (and just catch a member of the congregation catching the Holy Ghost). “Lying On The Truth,” performed by another Gospel band, The Rance Allen Group, provided another showstopper. The enormously entertaining (and most questionably fashioned) Rufus Thomas brought the stadium down during the “Funky Chicken” sequence, as the crowd storms the field and then, just as quickly, returns to the stands once the song completes. Blues artist Little Milton, who was not able to attend the actual concert, is also featured in the film during a sequence that is basically a precursor to music videos as he performs “Walking The Backstreet And Crying” next to a trash can filled with burning embers—perhaps a visual reminder of the 1965 riots. In fact, I was very excited to see how Stuart stitched the film together where the musical content would often reference and comment upon the interview segments, making the exchange and dialogue especially riveting.
I could go on and on about the wonders that are contained in Mel Stuart’s “Wattstax,” but I really want for you to make the discovery on your own. This is an expert documentary that captured a time and place of African American culture where civil rights, soul music and the spiritual are all intertwined. Beyond that, “Wattstax” unearthed feelings that lined the past, present and potential future together so seamlessly that it ended up creating a world of the human experience that is excitingly and explosively right now!!
As I ruminate over the film and this review, I just have to acknowledge one more thing: I just knew there was a good reason for me to be flipping cable channels that night!