Wattstax, in August of 1972, stands as a fantastic musical culmination of a long political struggle and cultural process for black people. This struggle was marked by a number of crucial events signaling the peak and then slow winding-down of the civil rights movement, resulting in the reversal of much of its momentum and spirit. Political highs and lows of the decade included the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, along with the brutal counterpoints of the ’65 Watts Rebellion, the ’68 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and a growing, reactionary “white backlash.” The ensuing rise of the Black Power rebellion — with its deep investment in a new affirmative “Black is Beautiful” sense of identity — emerged out of the realization that while the Civil Rights Movement resulted in some legal remedies, it did little to address black people’s systematic confinement to the lowest rung of America’s economic ladder.
Members of the audience doing a soul handshake.
With the turn of the decade, one of the sites where this fresh, rebellious sense of black politics and identity came to full expression was in mainstream popular culture. Blaxploitation flicks in all of their regal “baadnesssss” exploded on the cinema screen, producing among sixty-odd films, including the classics: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in ’71, Superfly and Shaft, both in ’72. At the same time, a number of black cast and theme television shows appeared on the major networks — notable among them Black Journal and Julia in ’68, Soul Train and The Flip Wilson Show in ’70 and Sanford & Son in ’72. At the same time, visionary musicians such as James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, the Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes shifted the subject of black popular music to urgent African American social concerns and agendas. Clearly though, the most ubiquitous expression of the new mood and times, displayed by all orientations and classes of African Americans, was the insurgence of nappy hair sported au naturel, or most assertively as the humungous “Afro.”
Accordingly, clenched-fist salutes and soul handshakes, platform shoes, brightly-patterned dashikis, floppy hats, bell-bottomed pants and new dance fads all visualize the loud and liberated aspirations of the 90,000-plus audience, as Wattstax captures a grand moment in an emergent black consciousness, with its attendant shifts in politics, language and culture. From the ribald and wry social observations of the brilliant, rising comedian Richard Pryor, to the “I Am Somebody” mantra of Jesse Jackson, to the fabulous “soul” costuming of the Bar-Kays, to the gospel meter of the Staples Singers or the funky “wa-wa” big band sounds of Isaac Hayes playing the theme from Shaft, one can see the markers and expressions of a new, self-fashioned, assertive people in “Wattstax.”
But what is most unique and telling about the film is that rather than focusing exclusively on the premeditated views of the “talented tenth” of black political and intellectual leadership (as most documentaries do), Wattstax captures the spontaneous voices and often illuminating opinions of the common people of Watts. In their own words and social spaces — from storefront churches to barbershops, street corners and beauty parlors — working class, low income, unemployed and welfare black urban people, (all still ghettoized, seven years after the Watts Rebellion), talk about everything from social inequality and police oppression to ghetto economics, relationships and black religion. Here “the people” are cast as the up-front, cutting-edge of the push for full African American equality and participation in American society. In all, Wattstax captures the rising expectations of black people at that brief optimistic, “revolutionary” political-cultural moment: between the slow decline of the Civil Rights movement and the rise of backlash neo-conservatism, looming on the near political horizon.
Film critic and professor Ed Guerrero teaches in Cinema Studies at New York University. He is the author of Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Temple University Press) and Do the Right Thing (British Film Institute). He is also a member of The Library of Congress, the National Film Preservation Board and has written numerous essays for journals such as Journal of Popular Film and Television, Discourse, Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies and Cineaste.