Craig H. Werner
If you’re looking for a single image to sum up the meaning of the Wattstax Festival, or for that matter the impact of Black Power on America, you can’t do better than the moment near the end of Mel Stuart’s brilliant documentary when Jesse Jackson introduces Isaac Hayes to the 90,000 packing the Los Angeles Coliseum. It had been a long day and, as always when black Angelenos come into close contact with the LAPD, anger simmered just below the surface. A short while earlier, the crowd had responded to Memphis soul legend Rufus Thomas’s good-natured call by surging past the police barriers and turning the field into a jubilant showcase for black dance, fashion and, at least potentially, revolutionary zeal.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson at Wattstax.
With memories of the 1965 Watts riot still fresh in the minds and everyday life of both the audience and the police, it wasn’t unthinkable that the celebration might erupt into an uncontrolled expression of the rage that Rev. Jackson — sporting a stylish Afro and still years away from his elder statesman status — was struggling to channel into constructive political action. So, as Hayes, musical incarnation of Blaxploitation anti-hero John Shaft, takes the stage, Jackson pleads for calm, warning the audience that another invasion of the field will bring the festivities to an abrupt end.
The decisive moment comes when Hayes, a.k.a. Black Moses, casts aside his full length cloak to reveal the gold chains draped over his gleaming ebony skin. He’s black and proud, the embodiment of the Movement’s half-mythic dream of self-acceptance and self-determination. The audience isn’t about to risk missing out on his performance in exchange for the momentary pleasure of defying the cops. Jesse Jackson’s smile breaks down the meaning better than a ream of sociological studies: music and style had the power to transcend the tensions that threatened to tear the dream apart.
Wattstax is a brilliant film in ways that are more obvious now than when it was released in 1973. Circling around the musical performances by the Memphis soul artists who drew on their gospel and blues roots to imagine a funky musical future, the film pinpoints the key themes of the Black Power: the tensions between the sacred and the secular, male and female, between analytical brilliance and rhetorical bullshit. Expressed in the voices of everyday black people and comic philosopher Richard Pryor, Stuart spins these themes into a polyrhythmic film as dense as Hayes’ symphonic soul and as wise as the Staple Singers, who remind the audience that the real challenge is to live the life they sing about in their song. Wattstax didn’t win an Oscar but, in a world that cared about race and history and uncomfortable truths, it would have.
Craig H. Werner teaches African-American music, literature, and American cultural history in the Afro-American Studies department at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author, among other works, of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America and Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and the Rise & Fall of American Soul. A member of the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he has written liner notes for re-releases of classic soul albums and contributed to numerous radio and television documentaries on topics ranging from the Harlem Renaissance to Motown.