PBS Premiere: Sept. 7, 2004Check the broadcast schedule »

Film Update

Wattstax - Mel Stuart

I'm very happy that the film finally made it to television after thirty years. I think if you see Wattstax today, you're going to see a hard kernel or core of what the black experience is. There was a great feeling at that time of positive energy. The civil rights movement was in full flow, everybody thought something good was going to come about. That energy in certain ways may have been dissipated, but not the feelings and not the spirit. The attitudes about men and women haven't changed. The attitudes towards gospel haven't changed. Many of the political attitudes have not changed. I think African-American people today will look upon it as a truthful presentation of their experience.

—Mel Stuart, Director, Wattstax

Al Bell

When you watch , you see, if you have this perspective in mind as you view it, just about anything I could sit here and tell you about African-Americans. You see it all. It's the real deal. And I use that in the present tense because there ain't been too much change!

We knew [making the film] was important. We knew it was an important step, especially with black people doing it.
But we couldn't have possibly had any idea that thirty years later, the film would resonate like this in people's minds and eyes — nor dream that the situation would be just about the same. Because the hope and drive and ambition in all of us was to bring about change and to have a better quality of life for ourselves. To look at it thirty years later, it's staggering.

— Al Bell, Executive Producer, Wattstax

Isaac Hayes

My biggest memory is coming out and facing all those people in the audience. That was great — you get power from that. They give you the love and support, and you give them your heart, through entertaining. Entertainment is the strongest form of communication.

That whole day was a great experience. That morning I visited the famous Watts Tower, then we had a parade and I was the Grand Marshall of the Parade. I got a chance to meet Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee for the first time. The people were the main component. People came out in hordes and stayed out there all day, from late morning all through the hot sun on through the chill of the evening. They packed lunches and it was a big outing, a big celebration. I suspected we would become a part of history, if people were fair about it.

This film sets a great example for young people today — the whole day went without incident. Nowadays if five people are in a room, they're fighting! It didn't happen at Wattstax. We can respect each other. That's one of the important messages from the film. We had a good time and all the artists expressed themselves, through all types of music: R&B, jazz, blues, gospel. We celebrate like that. Hip-hop and rap groups should take note of the fact that it was live music being played on stage, musicians with horns, keyboards, guitars and basses. We need more live music now, I've been preaching that for the last ten years.

The film stands very well today. It's a great reference, so that people can have a better understanding of what our experiences were like then. Unfortunately, a lot of the conditions you see in the film still exist today. You see Jesse Jackson lead the whole coliseum in his famous speech, "I Am Somebody." It was just so inspiring. That's why I recommend everybody see it, especially our young people who so badly need it.

— Isaac Hayes, Performer

Photo: Larry Dodson of the Bar-Kays today

As I was looking back at the film, it just reminded me of '72, '73, those years, powerful years. Black people were in a ball of emotion. Racially things weren't calm, and that's one reason why I liked Wattstax. Wattstax was a calming that people didn't really believe could happen. They expected a lot of trouble, and I don't know of one incident that happened. That's incredible, for the amount of people that were there.

They were mesmerized by the speaking of Jesse Jackson. And if you looked out into the audience, you saw black people becoming proud, maybe for the first time in a lot of instances. There was a lot of emotion there.

— Larry Dodson, The Bar-Kays