Wattstax is such a hot, upbeat, candid, funny, poignant and richly entertaining film I was halfway through it before a question arose. Is this still possible? I was in my 20s when the film was made, so all that I had forgotten made me laugh out loud for a while: hot pants — thank God no one took my picture in them; platinum afro wigs; Rufus Thomas’s bandy legs; African gear mixed with disco flash. I was grasping for names to put to faces from the past, and wondering, is this still possible?
I asked myself this about the making of Wattstax, the creation of the concert itself, the places filmed in the African American community, the use of Richard Pryor as an observer, the candor, respect, and optimism, the blend of music, the absence of noise about money and fame, the sincere enthusiasm for the political. Just the idea of taking artists into local venues and letting folks in for free seems romantic in this cynical time. Wattstax is a beguiling prism through which to view a moment in black America in which some realities of today were inconceivable.
Young woman with a Wattstax afro.
In 1973, black culture was being “mainstreamed” following the black power movement with mixed results, from a host of black “firsts” among elected officials to Nixon-era retrenchment on civil rights. Great black music was being created in every genre, black women novelists were changing fiction, Angela Davis was out of jail, black folks were winning Emmys, Grammys, Pulitzers, and everybody was a poet.
Today, in part because of Richard Pryor, and in spite of the fact that he pointed out slavery brought people here and created a new tribe called “niggers,” you can say the “n” word anywhere but you cannot say “racist.” Frank comment on race is as scarce in offices or editorials as it was in 1953. Discourse on race was important in 1973, along with self-respect, and activism.
A service taking place in a storefront church.
Does the discourse continue only in universities? In black communities especially, such talk is in danger. Exactly where would you find the streetcorner philosophers in Wattstax or those on soap boxes in years past? Gentrification and quality-of-life policing have all but disappeared the domino-playing, brown-paper-bag folk who had all the answers before you had questions. Or have guns driven these men off the street? Public squares in places like Harlem have become expensive real estate. The storefront churches so artfully documented in Wattstax are harder to find. If you take a film crew into South Central Anywhere today, will you see throngs of Muslim women, or crowded local restaurants where food is cooked by hand?
Can we see this kind of concert again with its mix of sounds and generations? Even as some of the Stax blues stars are going on, the cinematographers capture young men speaking of the blues as the past, and today it could not be more true. And yet the music speaks to the heart, and the men interviewed recall heartbreak with an openness that seems an age away from rhymes that never sigh. The film’s artists and audience revel in not taking one’s self too seriously. The visible conviction of one’s inner and outer beauty has been turned inside out by makeover television. The people in Wattstax celebrate the genius of African American music, the elegance of empowerment, and all the graces of self-acceptance. Watch the faces when Rev. Jesse Jackson leads the audience in chanting “I Am Somebody” — they mean it, they got it.
Thulani Davis is a writer whose work includes theater, journalism, fiction, and poetry. She is the author of Maker of Saints, 1959 and edited the collection, Malcolm X, The Great Photographs. She has written and narrated several television and radio documentaries. In 1993 she won a Grammy for album notes for Aretha Franklin, and was nominated for a Grammy for the opera X. Her most recent play, Everybody’s Ruby: Story of a Murder in Florida, premiered in 1999 at the New York Shakespeare Festival.