The Watts riots in 1965 were one of the first alarm bells signaling that the new civil-rights era would have an underside. Just the year before, Lyndon Johnson had signed the historic Civil Rights Act; 1965 brought its successor, the Voting Rights Act. The quiet revolution wrought by Dr. King and his supporters was transforming America, but couldn’t forestall the madness of arson in the inner cities.
Seven years later, on August 20, 1972, the Watts Summer Festival observed the anniversary of the riots with a seven-hour concert, called Wattstax, of African-American music at the L.A. Coliseum. That concert was the subject of the 1973 documentary Wattstax, which is now being re-released to theatres with new footage. The new material includes the concert’s final performer, Isaac Hayes; his renditions of “Shaft” and “Soulsville” had been deleted from the 1973 version because of copyright issues. Both of the Isaac Hayes songs are terrific, but they are not the chief reason anyone should see this film. Wattstax is worth seeing because it works, from start to finish, as a concert movie — and also as an amazing time capsule of African-American life and attitudes, A.D. 1972.
First, the music. The variety of genres represented — blues, gospel, soul, rock, and funk — is impressive, as is the quality of the sound (completely remastered) and the performances themselves. Among the highlights are the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” the Rance Allen Group’s “Lying on the Truth,” Johnny Taylor’s “Jody’s (Got Your Girl and Gone),” and especially the devastating “Walking the Backstreet and Crying” by blues great Little Milton.
Milton’s lonely blues remind the viewer of what is being commemorated, the pain amid the joy of music making; and this is where the film’s time-capsule aspect really kicks in. Interspersed among the music acts are clips of the Watts neighborhood, including eye-opening interviews with residents. Among them is one who believes that but for the riots, the white community would not have paid attention to Watts; another focuses on the improvements that have taken place; a woman provides a sad jolt by including, in her litany of praise for African-American men, the assertion that “the way he abuses me is beautiful.”
The movie also has a brief visual montage of African-American History 101, including the famous clip in which Dr. King proclaimed, the night before he was assassinated, “I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” But the promised land he saw from that mountaintop would remain, for too many, elusive. In this regard, it’s entirely appropriate that the master of ceremonies for Wattstax was none other than Jesse Jackson — a man who has spent the three decades since 1972 pointing African Americans simultaneously toward and away from the promised land, with his mix of moral uplift and race-mongering blackmail.
“We may be in the slum,” Jackson declared to the Wattstax audience, “but the slum is not in us.” It’s words like these that made an earlier generation — black and white alike — admire Jesse Jackson; they seemed to point the way out of the racial and economic cul-de-sac of the Seventies. We are not, he seemed to be saying, the product of our environments; we are, rather, “Somebody.” And he was, in saying this, entirely correct. So who could have predicted, on that beautiful Sunday afternoon in 1972, that the slum spirit, the “slum in us,” would — through such violent media as gangsta rap — outlast many of the slum buildings themselves? And that even as a black middle class prospered, the harmful values of the slum would find a new audience among affluent white kids seeking “authenticity” through pseudo-black posturing?
The Afros and sideburns on display in Wattstax belong in the past; but the music remains vibrant. So, sadly, do the issues raised by this fine documentary.