Here is Richard Pryor to introduce footage of a concert which meant a lot to him and the people of the Watts district of Los Angeles, which would have been most famous for the tower sculptures built there if it had not been for the devastating riots which smashed up the place in 1965 and made headlines across the world, which may have damaged the region but also raised the consciousness of many African Americans and woke up a lot of people to the troubles they were facing in the poorest areas. To commemorate the riots, the Stax record label organised a concert, and that is what this is about...
Well, it is and it isn't for director Mel Stuart, now best known for helming the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory rather than his extensive work in documentaries, tried to capture the spirit and opinions of the populace by lacing the concert with clips of residents discussing various aspects of black culture. For some reason Wattstax became known as "The Black Woodstock", as if Woodstock was an exclusively white affair - a certain Mr Jimi Hendrix would like a word with you about that when you meet him in the afterlife - but for all the anti-Vietnam War mood to that concert of a couple of years before, this was a lot more politically motivated.
As seen in those interviews, where the locals spoke plainly about their views on life, ranging from the riots to the blues to black men going out with white women. Pryor also showed up in segments filmed in a local bar to riff on various subjects familiar from his standup routines, but invaluable for fans of the comedian as an early example captured for posterity of what he was capable of; in addition, Love Boat fans would be intrigued by a very outspoken Ted Lange expounding and turning the air blue in the process, as many of those interviewed did. Some feel we could have down without these parts eating into the music time, but they did offer a snapshot of how the average Watts citizen was thinking at the time.
As for that music, somewhat frustratingly we didn't get to see every act perform whole songs, just some of them, with others relegated to short clips, but when the tunes were given their chance to breathe, they became the best reason to watch. Not every act was able to appear on the night due to overrunning, so some were filmed separately a little while later - the Emotions belt out gospel in a church, for example, but perhaps the most notorious example of that was Isaac Hayes, built up as the main draw and originally performing his Theme from Shaft in front of the adoring crowd. That was until MGM's lawyers got involved (this was a Columbia release) and he had to replace that with a different recording some time later, not the filmmakers' intention at all.
Fortunately, by the time this was rereleased for its thirtieth anniversary, the rights had been sorted out and it ends the way it was supposed to, the film played much better, although the highlight perhaps remained Rufus Thomas and his antics. He comes on in a pink cape, opens it to reveal equally shocking pink-hued suit, including shorts, ram's head medallion, and white knee-length boots, and launches into his song which fires up the audience so much that they pile over the fences of the L.A. Colisseum and start getting on down on the field. Rufus is then told he has to order them off, which he does in highly entertaining fashion, especially when one umbrella-weilding spectator refuses to leave and he gets the full brunt of his humorous putdowns. On a more serious note, the Reverend Jesse Jackson inspires the crowd with his speeches, as do the songs of the likes of The Staples Singers and The Bar-Kays, the latter evidently determined to steal Hayes' thunder. If nothing else, Wattstax set a time and place with vivid, rousing clarity.