Watch Wattstax, The Concert Documentary About Life In South Central In 1972
It's Martin Luther King Day weekend, and if you feel like watching something that sheds a little light on the history of the African American experience in L.A., try the amazing 1973 concert festival documentary Wattstax.
The film, directed by Mel Stuart (Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, Welcome Back, Kotter), documents the 1972 Wattstax festival, a concert at the L.A. Coliseum featuring the stars of Memphis soul label Stax Records. Shot seven years after the catastrophic Watts Riots, the film also goes outside the festival grounds to take a rich look at the lives of young black people in South Central at the time, visiting clubs and churches, hanging out with ordinary folks on the street, and capturing Richard Pryor - the film's de facto emcee - bantering with friends about life, love and race in America. The movie is packed with no-holds-barred musical performances from Isaac Hayes (in a mind-blowing proto-Kanye performance of "Shaft"), The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas and Luther Ingram, and a riveting invocation from a young Rev. Jesse Jackson. Stuart keeps a keen eye on the details, capturing style, fashion, culture, personalities and language, weaving together a lively tapestry of music and community.
A few years ago, we saw Stuart, who was white, give a talk about the film at the Hammer Museum: he recounted the difficulty of getting into black clubs to film segments, needing Pryor and his friends to convince bouncers that the director was "legit." But he also said he viewed the project as an important opportunity to include young black filmmakers, so he hired most of the crew from UCLA's African American film students club.