Steppin' Into The Screen | Wattstax
What makes this documentary so poignant is not the cavalcade of talent, the remarkable soundtrack, or the incredible 70’s festival footage but the vulnerable and raw Vox pops that cleverly interjects throughout from the Watts community.
Screening at Melkweg, Amsterdam 12th of April - tickets here!
It is more than likely that you’ve drilled the soundtrack of Wattstax than ever seen the film by the same title, but now as it reaches its 50th anniversary the time is now. The Watts Summer Festival, an event held to commemorate the 1965 Watts riots, was a celebration of Black pride, Black power, Blackness in all its glorious forms with a myriad of iconic artists like The Bar Kay’s, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers performing. What makes this documentary so poignant is not the cavalcade of talent, the remarkable soundtrack or the incredible 60’s festival footage but the vulnerable and raw Vox pops that cleverly interjects throughout from the Watts community.
This film, although 50 years old, is more than relevant in regard to insurmountable race issues today. Whatcha See is Whatcha Get by Dramatics is the introductory song and that is exactly what the film intends to do, every perspective from the community and on every taboo topic that surrounds them like the church, money, cheating, love, music, police brutality, Black on Black violence, slavery and the use of the word n****.
As the Star Spangled Banner sung by Kim Weston echoes throughout the stadium, a vox pop leans in with a community member reflecting on American patriotism “I’ve got no country, I’ve got no flag, I’ve got no damn thing to fight for”. The editing is so tongue in cheek but from every angle, each song directly has the power to conflict or complement the next vox pop, you never know what you’re going to get. Two men talk about trust and power within their community and even in one sitting we see a harsh reality “Anybody that uses anybody else to gain is pimping” his friend retorts “Well I’ll tell you what soul brother, can’t nobody pimp you but your pimp ass self”.
There is no sugar coating and that can be clearly spelled out by the presence of the one and only Richard Pryor who is featured throughout the film (known as one of the most unadulterated, influential and greatest comedians of all time) “They have laws for pedestrians but they don’t have laws for people at night when cops accidentally shoot people…How do you accidentally shoot a n**** 6 times in the chest?!”. Pryor’s ability to speak candidly about the sad realities of some in the community hits hard and yet thanks to his powerful story-telling, stereotyped mimicry and handle over the cruel mistress that is comedy, he breathes light into each moment. Reverend Jesse Jackson announces to the festival crowd “Some folks may find it a little strange that we laugh, we sing and we joke but we’re doing our thing - the Black way to commemorate”.
From the footage, to the vox pops, to the music, to even the fashion on display, this film is insurmountably bigger than a festival documentary, it is an unbiased peep into the perspective of Black America in the early 1970s from a multitudinous amount of minds. I’m rating it as Near Mint (check the Film Condition Board below) with its scintillating editing and timeless socio-political commentary this will now be a film that you can drill just as much as you did with the quintessential soundtrack.
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