POV: How would you describe Wattstax to the uninitiated?
Mel Stuart: Wattstax is a cultural portrait of the African-American experience at a particular time, in 1972. A look at how African-Americans felt about everything from love, sex, culture and politics to where we were at that time in the American drama.
POV: How did Wattstax grow to become more than a concert film?
Stuart: The idea at the beginning was to film the concert, put it together and ship it out. After we were done shooting, I realized that what I had was just a newsreel of a concert. Just a bunch of acts getting up, doing a thing, and people putting their hands in the air. I felt there was something else we had to say first. So when the Stax people came to me and said, “Well, have we got it?” I said, “I think we have to go a step further.”
So, we hired a whole bunch of very gifted young black cameramen and they went into the barbershops and the schools and the churches. I went sometimes, other times I didn’t go. Wattstax had songs about gospel, so we asked about gospel. Wattstax had songs about love, so we asked about love. And slowly, from that footage emerged a soulful expression of the black experience. It was very exciting, and I put the film back together.
POV: When did Richard Pryor become involved?
Stuart: So, at that point, Stax Records came to me and said, “Well, have we got it? Are we ready to go?” I said, “Nope, there’s something missing.” They said, “What do you need?” I said, “What we need is something like the chorus in Henry V by Shakespeare.” In that play, the chorus, a person, comes out and tells you what it’s all about. The subject’s so vast that you need somebody to explain what’s going on. I figured I needed somebody young and amusing who understood the black spirit.
They said, “We have a young guy in a funky little club down in Watts. Come down and see him, he’s pretty good.” I agreed to go and we all went down together. I was with [Associate Producer] Forest Hamilton, who was of great help to me. He was the son of Chico Hamilton, the famous jazz drummer. We walked into the club, and a little guy stood on a stand, doing comedy. I knew within two minutes that I was in the presence of one of the authentic geniuses of American comedy.
I went over and said, “Hi, I’m Mel Stuart,” and he said, “Hi, I’m Richard Pryor.” What he was doing in this funky club, I don’t know. I told him that we’d like to come back the next day to speak about the whole situation, about how he felt about color and so on. So, I went back the next day, and he was standing at the end of the bar with a leather jacket on. I asked him, “How about love?” Half an hour later he was finished with the funniest off-the-cuff routine I’d ever heard. I asked him about everything — “How about gospel? How about blues? How about soul? How about politics?” Whatever I said, his replies were so hot and so good that I couldn’t believe what I was getting. He went on for more than three hours, and anything I mentioned, he improvised amazing comedy about it. I said, “Oh my god, this is going to sum up the whole film.” It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever recorded on film.
POV: What are your favorite moments in the film?
Stuart: There are two or three sequences in the film that are very special to me. In one, a group called The Emotions sings in a church in Watts. I directed and shot that footage myself, and it was just very, very moving. The quality of the music, the harmonic structure, and the way the lead lady sang just blew me away.
Another was when Little Milton sings the blues. I staged it down at a railway station where you can see the Watts towers in the background. Harmonically and in every way, it was just right. They were all so good. It was a lot of fun dealing with such professional people.
There were many interviews in the film, but there’s one super great interview. A middle-aged man talks about a woman who left him. And I have never heard such an honest, poetic portrayal of lost love outside of Shakespeare. It was so beautiful. When he says, “she had my nose open,” you know what losing love is all about.
There was one very important moment that a lot of people don’t catch when they see the film. A young lady got up and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” to start the day. And amazingly, of the 90,000 black people that were there, not one person stood up. It was just an amazing example of how blacks felt about the country in the Vietnam days. And then they played the black national anthem and everybody got up, as Jesse Jackson led the song. A lot of people miss that moment when they see the film.
POV: What do you think the film has to say to us today?
Stuart: I think that African-American people today will find it a fascinating portrait, in fact I think everyone will find it very fascinating. I may be wrong, but I don’t think anybody’s quite captured in a straightforward manner how black people felt at that time. And I think their feelings haven’t changed that much. I don’t think that most people’s basic attitude changes that much, even as years go by. So, I think if you see this film today, you will find a hard kernel of the black experience. I think that African-American people today will share that feeling, that echo of their past.
I think it’s important to give all people a greater sense of the aspirations, the fears, and love of the black people. Working on the film was an eye-opening experience for me, coming from the white world. I learned a great deal. As Pryor said, it is a soulful expression of the black experience.
POV: Do you think the documentary format is particularly effective?
Stuart: I’ve worked both in features, like Willy Wonka, and documentaries like . In the long run I feel the documentaries will be more important. I can only sum it up this way. If we were lucky enough to find the television library of Rome around A.D. 10 or 34, what would you rather see: a Roman version of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” or a documentary on Christ or Caesar? With that I rest my case.
POV: Any advice for budding documentarians?
Stuart: To anybody that wants to go into the documentary world, I have five pieces of advice. But I’m only going to tell you two. The first is that you must be lucky. If you’re not lucky, get out. Second, but far more important, is: go alone in a room and find what you can do well. I wanted to become a musician or a composer. I went and heard Stravinsky conduct the “Symphony Of The Psalms” and that night I gave up music, because I knew I wasn’t hearing what the master was hearing. If you want to be a writer, you’d better be damned sure you’re a writer. If you want to be a director, you better be very sure. Whatever you want to do, don’t fool yourself. You’ll wind up at the bottom end, very sad, and you would have been a great plumber. I don’t say this lightly — I’m very serious about this — but you really have to know that you’re good at what you want to do.
Oh, I could give you another rule. I’ll give you the last one: if you ever interview anybody, be stupid. Never tell them what you know, never act smart. That’s the trouble with Barbara Walters — “Well, I hear you were going to have a divorce.” Hey, I want them to tell me, Barbara, not you, you idiot.
The other rules we’ll save for another time.