- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

How could you not relish the sight of a young, Afro-topped Jesse Jackson in a tropical-colored dashiki?

During the finale of 1972’s Watts Summer Festival, a seven-hour concert at the L.A. Coliseum featuring some of the best black musicians of the day, Mr. Jackson, ever the hoarder of attention, grandly announces the arrival of the great Isaac Hayes:

“He’s one bad — I’m a preacher, I can’t say it. He’s one bad … brutha.”

This is among the many pleasures of a digitally restored, special edition of “Wattstax,” a 1973 documentary about the Los Angeles soul-music festival.

Rounded out with man-on-the-street interviews with all manner of black Angelenos, including some hilarious bits with a young Richard Pryor, “Wattstax” is a brilliant time capsule of a movie.

The high-water mark of the civil rights era had come and gone; unemployment was rampant, even worse in the inner city, and inflation was high — an economic condition that hadn’t yet been dubbed “stagflation.”

As the interviews show, Los Angeles’ blacks were in an uneasy truce not only with their white counterparts, but with each other, too.

Was it naive and unauthentic of blacks to think things were improving? Did black men betray black women by dating whites?

Amid all this cultural anxiety, L.A. blacks turned out in droves — more than 110,000 — for the soul-music extravaganza at the Coliseum.

A commemoration of the 1965 Watts riots, a six-day anarchic eruption in inner-city Los Angeles during which 34 people had been killed, the festival was a humane affirmation of part of what black America had going for it, even when times were bad: namely, loads of talent and creativity.

There were the soul-rending Staples Singers, followed by a flamboyant Rufus Thomas in hot-pink cape and shorts doing “The Funky Chicken” and drawing thousands out of their seats and onto the field.

Then there was the late blues guitarist Albert King, whose licks here reminded me how much he influenced the late Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Those are just a few of the great talents who performed at Wattstax, a sort of portmanteau word that combines the name of the L.A. neighborhood, Watts, and the Memphis-based soul-music record label, Stax, that soon would go bankrupt in its quest to move to the West Coast (a relocation that helped ruin Motown Records, too).

In what today seems like a scattershot approach, director Mel Stuart cut between concert footage and seemingly random street montages, but a collage of storefront churches and a performance of “Peace Be Still” in one such church is a clue to what Mr. Stuart was up to at the time.

As the Emotions cranked up the gospel heat, a couple of the congregants fell into ecstatic, charismatic frenzies, not unlike — on the surface, that is — the erotically charged transports common in a secular music setting.

Music, especially this music, has redemptive power. With soul and gospel, passionate pleading to “baby” or “Jesus” comes from the same musical well, and produces a similar psychic relief.

Much has changed for black Americans — for the better — in the 30 years since “Wattstax” was filmed, but what hasn’t changed is the power of that era’s black American music. Guess that’s why it’s called “timeless.”


TITLE: “Wattstax: The Special Edition”

RATING: R (profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Mel Stuart. Produced by Mr. Stuart and Larry Shaw. Cinematography by Roderick Young, Robert Marks, Jose Mignone and Larry Clark. Edited by Robert K. Lament.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes.


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