Recent events in Missouri have brought back painful memories for many of the brutal treatment of protestors by police during the Civil Rights Movement. Others see specters of the riots in cities like Detroit, Washington, DC, and the beleaguered Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder. These are battles we would like to think belong to the past, but in remembering them, we should also remember peaceful expressions of solidarity and nonviolent responses to persistent social injustice. One such response came in the form of a massive concert at the L.A. Coliseum put on by Memphis’ Stax records in 1972, seven years after the Watts riots. Featuring some of Stax’ biggest names—Isaac Hayes, Albert King, The Staples Singers, and more—the Wattstax music festival brought in more than 100,000 attendees and raised thousands of dollars for local causes, becoming known informally as the “black Woodstock.”
The idea came from West Coast Stax exec Forrest Hamilton and future Stax president Al Bell, who hoped, he said, to “put on a small concert to help draw attention to, and to raise funds for the Watts Summer Festival” as well as “to create, motivate, and instill a sense of pride in the citizens of the Watts community.” To make sure everyone could attend, rich or poor, the organizers sold tickets for a dollar each. Rev. Jesse Jackson gave the invocation, leading the thousands of concertgoers in a call-and-response reading of William H. Borders’ poem “I Am – Somebody.” There to film the event was Mel Stuart, director of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The resulting documentary, which you can watch at the top of the post, features incredible performances from Stax’ full roster of artists at the time (see a swaggering Isaac Hayes play “Shaft” above). Despite security concerns from LA officials, still nervous about a gathering of “more than two black people” in one place, says Bell, the concert was a peaceful and joyously funky occasion: “you saw the Crips and Bloods sitting side by side—no problems.”
The film intercuts concert footage with man-on-the street interviews and “trenchant musings” from a then little-known Richard Pryor, who offers “sharp insight into the realities of life for black Americans, circa 1972.” It’s a moment of “get-down entertainment, raised-fist political rally, and stand-up spiritual revival” characteristic of the post-Civil Rights, Vietnam era movement, writes the PBS description of Wattstax. Unfortunately, the documentary “was considered too racy, political, and black to receive wide theatrical release or television broadcast” despite a “noted” Cannes screening and a 1974 Golden Globe nomination. It’s been a cult favorite for years, but deserves to be more widely seen, as a record of the hope and celebration of black America after the rage and despair of the late-60s. The messages of Wattstax still resonate. As Bell says, “forty years later, I hear African Americans in the audiences reacting the same scenes, the same way they did forty years ago.”
Wattstax will be added to our collection of Free Documentaries.