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Wattstax (1973), Black Pride, and Good Music

July 31, 2015

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I’ve found myself in a rather large musical documentary kick lately. A busy schedule that involved road tripping halfway across the country (more to come on that soon) has prevented me from delving into my recent watchings, like the captivating, heartbreaking documentary Amy. Musical documentaries can be a cut and dry experience narratively speaking. Usually audiences watch interviews with participants of the performance or performer, clip footage reveals past events, or sometimes the documentary is just a recording of a specific performance. On the rare occasion, an exceptional director can intertwine these elements into fascinating ways to create a unique narrative all of its own. Mel Stuart does this by painting a beautiful picture of the Black Power/Black is Beautiful movement through the Wattstax concert in Watts, Los Angeles in 1973. Stuart’s vision of the all day concert transforms the film from simple musical documentary into a celebration of Black culture.

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Rufus Thomas, The Staple Singers, Albert King, The Bar-Keys, and the smoothest man of the period, Isaac Hayes, should be all the names needed to find interest in the Wattstax concert. Nevertheless, this film has slipped under the radar of mass consciousness since its release. In fact, a trip to The Stax Museum and a feature poster within it alone was the first time I had ever heard of such a magnificent event heralded as the African-American answer to Woodstock just three years prior. Home to some of the most unique and greatest soul singers of the 1970s, the Memphis recording studio, Stax, is a lesser known jewel in crown of music production studios throughout the ages. Though Stax produced some of the greatest artists of this generation (Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas), it held its weight as an underdog in an age of impressive, high-caliber music making.

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Through interweaving concert footage, candid interviews with city residents, and people watching of patrons in the audience, Wattstax gestates more of a look into 1970s black culture and the mindset of the era than a simple concert featuring the studios most prominent artists. In commemoration of the Watts riots of 1965, Wattstax meant to instill a sense of pride and togetherness within the torn, predominately black community of Watts. Tickets for the festival were supposedly sold for $1 each! The main characters of the film becomes the nameless people recorded speaking their minds and deepest thoughts in comfortable settings. They argue coarsely, yet familiarly with friends, or speak in curt terms of desires or expectations of and within black culture. The topics range from love, relationships, justice, social disadvantages, and feelings inspired by music.

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Together these elements brings forth a film vibrant with substance and a groove. It’s hard not to dance or at lease wiggle to the music that plays, but also feel alive with the spirit of the festival itself. Richard Pryor makes numerous appearances giving laughs and poignant insights into the black experience between moments. A scene that begins with Jesse Jackson, a then afro clad, mustachio who punctuates with precise alliteration and clever styling’s, praises blackness and calls for self-awareness and unity among concert goers before introducing the festival’s main attraction to the stage. The crowd chants back with him vocalizing in unison a line from a poem by civil rights activist Reverend William Holmes Borders, “I am black, brown, white…I am somebody.” Such a sentiment brought a feeling of elation to my heart as the audience of the concert held their fists high and chanted along being reminded of their importance, and furthermore me reminded of mine in a time where race relations is still on the forefront of needing change speaking volumes to Wattstax’s staying power and need for a reinstallment in today’s society.

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SEE IT. Watch below and relive the spirit of the time period. 

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