“What You See Is What You Get”: Wattstax, Richard Pryor, and the Secret History of the Black Aesthetic

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1. An evening for monkey fur and cornrows

 

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At the Wattstax premiere: Congresswoman Yvonne Burke, musician Isaac Hayes, and unidentified woman; Zsa Zsa Gabor flanked by two members of the Bar-Kays

February 4, 1973: ghetto-fabulous night at downtown LA's acropolis. For the premiere of Wattstax, a documentary that aimed to capture both a black music festival and the community behind the music, the film's producers sought to bring the funk to the Ahmanson Theater in the Los Angeles Music Center, the complex that was the cornerstone of downtown's cultural redevelopment in the 1960s and the funk did arrive, decked out in pink mink, turbans, and jeweled capes and caftans.

It was the first time that the Ahmanson, which had recently featured Charlton Heston in Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Richard Chamberlain in Richard II, had been rented out for a film premiere, and the choice of venue conveyed how Wattstax aspired to be a civic as well as artistic event. The premiere's full guest list was an improbable mash-up of Hollywood stars, political officials, and the ordinary people of Watts. Sure, the film's producers made sure to invite Hollywood's old lions and new sensations Jack Benny and Warren Beatty, Edgar Bergen and Candace Bergen, Fred Astaire and Francis Ford Coppola all with offers of a personal limousine escort. But the event's novelty was in the mix. It was certainly the only occasion where Richard Nixon's staff assistant and the deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee consorted not only with the likes of musicians Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas but also with a collection of gang members and welfare mothers, who had been bused in from Watts by the film's producers. Even more strikingly, the premiere was an occasion where white luminaries didn't set the ground rules for celebration. The recommended dress on the gold-plated invitation was "bizarre," and the premiere was, in the words of the LA Times, a "fashion free-for-all." Redd Foxx arrived in an orange-printed polyester knit suit, Raymond St. Jacques in a full-length orange monkey fur coat, Jim Brown in a floor-length white wool coat over a jump suit.

If one image were to capture the frisson of the premiere, it would be this: Wattstax narrator Richard Pryor, resplendent in a white leather suit and meticulous cornrows, shaking hands with a business-suited Tom Bradley, then a city councilman representing the multi-ethnic Crenshaw neighborhood and the black middle-class neighborhoods adjacent to it. 1

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Headed for bigger things: Pryor and Bradley at Wattstax's premiere

 

Four months later, Bradley would be inaugurated as LA's mayor a double electoral breakthrough, given both the city's preeminence and the relatively small percentage of blacks in its pool of voters. And Bradley would, in his understated way, continue to bring the funk to downtown, integrating hundreds of thousands of blacks into the city's municipal infrastructure: more than one-quarter of the city's black men and nearly one-third of its black women worked for its public sector at some point during the 1970s. Meanwhile Pryor, who at the time of Wattstax had just resurfaced from a subterranean nine-month sojourn in Berkeley and was unknown as an actor, was likewise headed for bigger things, crossover sensations. Before Wattstax, he was largely a countercultural comic, often appearing as the sole black face in a hippie cavalcade; Wattstax helped establish him as the narrator of the black condition. The following year he released the album That Nigger's Crazy, which decisively brought the ghetto to American comedy and established him as the king of stand-up, and by the end of the decade he had emerged as the black Hollywood star of the post-blaxploitation age, carrying films like Which Way Is Up? and starring alongside Harvey Keitel in Blue Collar and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy, part of a series of interracial buddy comedies that added a new formula to the Hollywood studios' stock repertoire. It's tempting, then, to see Wattstax in the light of what it prefigured: the greater incorporation of blacks into American politics, especially municipal politics, and into American popular culture, with all the positive and negative resonances of "incorporation" attached. 2

But before we interpret Wattstax in the light of what it prefigured, we would do well to see Wattstax in the light that the film itself produced a light that took in those pink minks and jeweled caftans and revealed them to be much more than the glass of fashion. With a cunning balance of dispassion and sympathy, Wattstax sought to present the black community in its complexity, which meant that it was bound both to listen to its many voices and to capture its many masks. Voices that, like Pryor's, were both heartfelt but inflected with irony upon ironies; masks that were neither so easily constructed nor so easily removed. It is this optic, this way of seeing the black community and its creative impulses, that may be the film's greatest achievement. And fittingly enough, this optic was an achievement of something approaching a community itself. It radiated out of the camerawork of white director Mel Stuart and the crew of largely black and unknown cameramen that Stuart insisted upon, who were the hidden eyes behind Wattstax and essential to its success. 3

2. Desegregating the Hollywood documentary

Wattstax had many points of origin, multiple genealogies. One might, not unfairly, trace it back to the Molotov cocktails hurled by black Angelenos in the streets of Watts in mid-August 1965. Like other projects ranging from the Watts Writers Group and the Inner City Cultural Center to the Compton Communicative Arts Academy and Watts Towers Arts Center, Wattstax emerged "out of the ashes" of the 1965 Watts riot, which left 34 dead and revealed the frustration black Angelenos felt at the unfulfilled promises of the "affluent society" and, especially, the anger they harbored toward the LAPD. (The riot's spark was a routine arrest for drunk driving.) In response to the riot, the federal government, LA's municipal government and private foundations launched what historian Daniel Widener has called a "cultural war on poverty," sponsoring projects that appeared to equip individuals with the tools to escape a life of hardship. Some of these projects were surprisingly concrete at one point the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare contracted with a Watts foundation to rewrite anti-poverty pamphlets in terms "people in ghetto communities can understand" but most of them followed from a more abstract set of propositions: that cultural expression was a basic human need; that art might have a healing and educative power, allowing social conflicts to be mediated onstage or on the page rather than on the streets; and that (more particular to this mid-'60s moment) disadvantaged communities like Watts needed to nurture creative talent through their own institutions, ones with the autonomy to represent themselves in terms, to repeat a phrase, that "people in ghetto communities can understand." 4

The Watts Summer Festival was one such institution galvanized into being by the riots midwived annually by an enthusiastic set of community volunteers and bearing the imprimatur of city and federal governments alike. (While attending the first festival, Mayor Sam Yorty effused, without irony, "Isn't this beautiful? Everybody loves everybody else." And the marshal for the first festival's parade was a white man: Sargent Shriver, official director of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.) By 1972, the Summer Festival had become an established institution, regularly attracting between 75,000 and 125,000 Angelenos over its five days of events; crowds packed six rows deep alongside its two-and-a-half mile parade route to watch the floats glide by and to catch a glimpse of grand marshals like Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Tom Bradley and Sammy Davis Jr.  Yet the Festival had its share of troubles too accusations by local businessmen of financial impropriety, permits refused by city and county officials, even concerns voiced by Watts's local congressman over crowd control. 5

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Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, at the first Watts Summer Festival (1966); the Festival parade float of Douglass House, a hub for cultural organizations in Watts

Wattstax the concert was an outgrowth of the Summer Festival and its spirit of community arts, though the very scale of the event a six-hour concert with a possible attendance of almost 100,000 people meant that the Festival was far from its first days when its organizers begged local groups for money to stage concerts in the Jordan High School gym. Like most inspired ideas, Wattstax the concert evolved serendipitously: it began when two members of the Watts-based Mafundi Institute, a black nationalist arts group, contacted Forest Hamilton, the West Coast director of the Memphis-based Stax Records, about sponsoring a concert in Will Rogers Park for Mafundi. The connection between Mafundi and Stax was notional but not incidental. Cultural nationalist in sensibility, Mafundi included US leader Ron Karenga among its directors and sponsored art that self-consciously emerged from a black aesthetic; though operated by a mix of white and black businessmen through 1973, Stax was among the leading purveyors of soul music in the "red beans and rice" mold, music that channeled the gospel impulse of the black church into some of the most impassioned and danceable music of the 1960s and 1970s. 6

Hamilton began brainstorming how Stax artists could be more involved in the Festival, which had heretofore largely attracted local rather than national talent, and proposed having Isaac Hayes, fresh from the success of Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft, as grand marshal of the festival parade. Then he began thinking big: why not put together a much larger concert that could showcase artists on the Stax label? LA, in effect, would become a staging ground for a stable of talent whose roots were in Memphis. The Mafundi Institute no longer would be a major player in the concert, though the idea of community involvement would stick: proceeds from the venture were to be directed back to other community-oriented projects like Jesse Jackson's PUSH, the Watts Summer Festival Fund, the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Watts, and the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation. Meanwhile Stax convinced the Schlitz Brewing Co. to underwrite the rental of the Memorial Coliseum and to subsidize tickets so that concertgoers might get in for just one dollar a commitment that explains why a Schlitz representative shared the stage at the concert's benediction with Jesse Jackson and Al Bell (though it may not explain the gusto with which he chanted 'I Am Somebody"). 7

"I am somebody!": Schlitz beer rep, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Stax's Al Bell

At this point, Stax partner Al Bell laid plans for Wattstax the concert to become Wattstax the film. In a great coup for Stax, he convinced independent producer David L. Wolper to put together the documentary. Wolper was much more than the Schlitz of the documentary world. A legendary figure in TV and film production, Wolper had, in his early-twenties, arranged the financing for the Superman TV show; had, in his thirties, produced The Race for Space, The Making of the President 1960, Four Days in September and the Jacques Cousteau TV specials; and was at the time of Wattstax involved in Visions of Eight, the official film of the 1972 Munich Olympics, for which he contracted eight leading international film directors, including Claude Lelouch, Arthur Penn, and Milos Forman, to helm individual segments. Wolper then asked Mel Stuart, an experienced documentarian, to direct the film and, when Stuart agreed, the top level of the creative team for Wattstax was in place. 8

Wolper and Stuart were, in some respects, unlikely partners of Stax. Al Bell and Larry Shaw, the head of Stax's film division, had served in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Committee, and their company had been in rough contact with the most militant, and sometimes thuggish, coteries of the Black Power movement, as part of its effort to establish itself as the vanguard of black-operated business. Wolper was nominally a Democrat, but his business model led him to produce films for the election campaigns of both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; he defined the mainstream even if he pushed a bit at its edges, daring to package, for instance, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) as a TV documentary. Stuart had most recently directed Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, hardly a film that seemed engagé in the terms of early-'70s politics, and he earned the Wattstax assignment simply by virtue of being vice president of Wolper Productions. 9

Stuart was nonetheless an apt choice. Growing up in New York City, he had frequented the Three Deuces and other bebop clubs on 52nd Street, and had aspired first to become a composer, dazzled by the technique of Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum and others. (One night, though, he heard Stravinsky and instantly shelved the idea of being a composer. His rationale: "You shouldn't be in a business, any business including plumbing, if you're not as good as the good ones.") Stuart's dalliance with bebop not only gave him a lasting respect for the artistry of black musicians but also shaped his rhythmic sensibility as an editor, which he developed under the tutelage of experimental filmmaker and animator Mary Ellen Bute. And Stuart cared enough about the social responsibility of his films, while adapting Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to bow to changes requested by a delegation of black actors. "Do you know that the Oompa Loompas in the book are black pygmys?" they asked. "Are you going to have these black folks working for the white boy?" To which he responded: "Okay, I'll give them orange faces and green hair." Another actor pointed out that, for a black audience, the title Charlie and the Chocolate Factory instantly evoked "Mr. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" a scenario with a white overseer lording over black workers. Forthwith the title was changed: "Willie Wonka" would lead on the marquee, not Charlie. 10

Stuart gave Wolper a historic ultimatum before accepting the Wattstax assignment. "I'll do it on one condition," he said. "I am the only white person on the upper management crew." Stuart felt that Watts was, in effect, an alien world to the director of The Making of the President 1964 and Wall Street: Where the Money Is. As a documentarian, he knew he needed the access, and palpable sense of camaraderie that only black camera operators could provide. So he set up an open call drawing upon union apprenticeship programs and university workshops alike and succeeded in recruiting forty-five black cameramen to shoot the concert, many of whom were residents of South Central. Forty-eight cameramen in total were used; one of the three non-blacks was John Alonzo, the experienced Latino cinematographer who shot Chinatown just after Wattstax and who supervised the camera crews on the day of the concert. (There was no possibility of a "do-over," and Stuart wasn't taking any chances.) 11

Stuart also pushed the film to explode the conventions of the concert documentary. Wattstax the concert has often been compared to Woodstock a comparison invited by the near-rhyming names of the two festivals but Wattstax the film did not limit itself, as did Woodstock the film, to a self-enclosed ethnography of an event. It's hard to imagine a film of Woodstock that traced the concertgoers back to their low-rent apartments, college dorms and family homes: the concert, after all, involved a pilgrimage away from a civilization deemed plastic and into a famously muddy nature. But for the film of Wattstax, Stuart quickly realized that the concert alone was a non-starter, aesthetically. "We put the rough project together and people gathered around and said, 'Is it ready?'," Stuart recalled. "I said 'No! It's a newsreel. I don't do newsreels.' We had to get into the streets and see how people felt." With his team of forty-five black cameramen to draw upon, Stuart sent camera crews into Watts's soul kitchens, barber shops, and churches, where they connected with clusters of Watts residents, most of whom in keeping with Watts's demographics were working-class men and women. "There are directors I could name black directors too who wouldn't have wanted so many street people in the film," said Stuart at the time. "They would want more lawyers and businessmen. But our producers took the decision to show the language and attitudes of the people who have to hassle with the essential business of living each day just to get by." 12

Just as powerful as the choice of working-class men and women was the angle of vision of these interviews. Though organized around topics supplied by the camera crews (love, church, the blues and so on), the interviews were framed to feel less like a power-charged dialogue between camera crew and "native informant" and more like an easygoing bull session among friends. It was a crucial decision on Stuart's part, one that no doubt unbeknownst to Stuart brought him closer to the worldview of black music critics like Amiri Baraka. By cutting dynamically between music onstage and interviews over the course of the film, Wattstax establishes a sociological vision of the music: a vision that appreciates its artifice its power as music and as costume drama while grounding our understanding in the attitudes of the community from which it springs. Wattstax frames the music not as a means of escaping the pressures of the world but as a means of handling them.

After assembling these "posse-on-the-street" interviews, Stuart made one last decisive intervention into the structure of Wattstax. When asked by the producers if the film was ready now, he replied, "Gentlemen, no. Gentlemen, we need Shakespeare." All was quiet in the room. "We need the chorus in Henry V." Pressed to explain himself, Stuart replied, "Henry V was so big and the pageant so big that [Shakespeare] couldn't put it all in the picture, so he needed some guy to tell you what was going on in France and England and in the war and everything else. We need somebody to be the chorus of this picture, someone who really knows the black soul and yet is funny." Stuart felt that a sober-sided narrator would kill the picture: "I didn't want a serious person digressing like Walter Cronkite about how the blacks feel about women and how the blacks feel about politics and how the blacks feel about gospel."

Forest Hamilton, Stax's West Coast director, was familiar with Richard Pryor and took Stuart to a "half empty room in a dull ass club" (actually, the Summit Club in central LA). After three minutes of watching Pryor, Stuart was convinced that he had seen "the comic genius of our time." The next day, he came back to the club and filmed Pryor riffing for three hours on the same set of topics that were thrown at the Watts residents on camera: politics, the blues, the church, the police. (Fortunately, these were the same subjects that were coming to define his stage act, so Pryor was able to improvise off of a well-established groove.) His presence across the film became its narrative thread, and his off-the-cuff responses set the tragicomic tone for the film as a whole. 13

Shakespeare, 1972: Richard Pryor

Shakespeare, 1972: Richard Pryor

 

3. "As Real as Real Can Get"

As befits a film that grew out of a summer festival that itself grew out of a riot, Wattstax dances on the fine line between social critique and cultural celebration. It begins with a forthrightly radical interpretation of the Watts riots.

Richard Pryor intones, with a solemnity and straight-to-the-camera address that will disappear in the later parts of the film, "All of us have something to say, but some are never heard. Over seven years ago, the residents of Watts stood together and demanded to be heard."

"Over seven years ago, the residents of Watts stood together and demanded to be heard."

This prologue sets the framework of the film: it establishes the Watts riot as a form of collective self-expression, the result of the forceful silencing of a black neighborhood. Then-LAPD Chief William Parker infamously compared the rioters to "monkeys in a zoo," lowering them to mere animals. By contrast, the film's prologue elevates them to the status of artists, making an implicit connection between the desire to represent oneself politically and the desire to represent oneself artistically. 14

The film's opening montage, set to The Dramatics' "What You See Is What You Get," gives a more extended answer to the question of what provoked the riots and what sort of community has survived them.

It starts with a man's scream as brazen an acknowledgment as one might expect, in a Hollywood-produced film, of the pain at the heart of this community. Then, in the kind of audio-visual rhyme that defines this sequence, the scream descends down the tonal scale as the camera descends down from the sky, and the music hits a groove just as the camera starts to rest on the features of the Watts Towers, the cultural landmark that, after the riots, became shorthand for the resourcefulness and inventiveness of Watts as a community. If "what you see is what you get," in the words of The Dramatics, here's what we see: a jeweled mosaic, bits of urban debris converted into the ornamentation of a structure that reaches up to the sky. "Some people are made of plastic, some people are made of wood," they sing, and we see neither plastic nor wood, but the rebar and cement that Simon Rodia tooled into these skeletal towers. "Some people have hearts of stone," they sing, and we do see a heart of stone but one that has been outlined with fragments of crockery and filled with pieces of green glass. Which is to say: we see a heart of stone that has been stylized into the realm of the beautiful.

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Opening montage: descending into the heart of the Watts Towers

The song then pivots "But maybe I'm for real" and the camera helicopters away from the towers and down into the streets of Watts, where it will remain for the rest of the sequence. From here on, the film aims to give us a mosaic of the community, an illustration of its expansive "realness": the images of Watts's street life are organized contrapuntally, through paired images that evoke the variety within the community. We see a young man and woman joshing beneath the window of a soul food restaurant, then an old man and young woman owner and customer interacting at a newsstand. We see three older women shuffling left-to-right down the street, in matching all-white outfits that suggest a religious order, holding hands; then two young boys one pushing the other in a go-cart fabricated, like the Watts Towers, out of industrial discards moving quickly in the opposite direction, right-to-left. We see three teenaged girls waiting on the street, perhaps to get picked up by a bus that arrives, then three older men hanging on the corner, one swigging a bottle, not waiting for anything anymore.

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Down into the streets of Watts

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Street life in Watts

Beauty shops and body shops, craps games and kids walking to school, the Mafundi Institute and the Missionary Baptist Church: these paired images testify to the interplay of young and old, religion and politics, work and leisure, that defines this community. As in the murals that gave expression to the Chicano movement of the 1970s, the visual catalogue here allows for a play of difference that, in actual practice, was considerably harder to sustain: what would those three older women in white make of those three older men on the corner, for instance? There's a utopian element to this street-life montage, inasmuch as it smoothes over fractures within the community, but at the same time the images themselves are hardly sentimental, especially when set to the musical plea embedded in "What You See Is What You Get." "I'm as real as real can get," the song goes, and the strain in the singer's voice suggests how that's both a point of pride and a point of vulnerability.

As if to emphasize this vulnerability, the montage ends on a dark note of intrusion, with a sense of the community's embattlement. First we see the red light of a police car, snuck in between an early example of Crips graffiti and a "God Is Love" sign. Then a teasing eight-second playlet about the politicization of the Watts community: a young boy, viewed through a chainlink fence, holds up his fist against a wall; the camera pans to reveal that his gesture mimics the nearby mural image of athlete John Carlos, raising his black-gloved fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. From this point onward, footage of policemen in Watts will predominate, edited to a striking rhythm. We cut back repeatedly to the scene of a lone patrolman, walking ineffectually or is it leisurely? back and forth in front of a burning building. Meanwhile we see split-second glimpses of the anger and humiliation of blacks in Watts: a bearded man in a clean white suit, screaming in rage and restrained by a friend; four young people walking alongside a house in what appears to be an alley, two with their hands up. Unlike the rest of the opening sequence, where Stuart has cut the film to the rhythm of the music, here the editing is out of sync with the music, as if to underline how much the police are a force of disruption. The police look like an occupying army, and through the rhythm of the editing which gives us many views of the police and only fugitive glimpses of the black community's response they feel cinematically like one too. (Stuart's early apprenticeship with filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute, who set music to avant-garde animation and who knew the pressure that near-subliminal images could exert, seems to have served him well.)

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A sense of embattlement

In all, this opening sequence is a sort of overture, establishing the themes the black community's internal diversity and its sense of collectivity; its devoted search for spirituality and its equally devoted search for pleasure; its embattlement at the hands of the police and its desire for justice and payback that will structure the film as a whole. It's an overture that also makes a soon-to-come and otherwise astonishing sequence seem quite comprehensible. The concert is just starting up, and Kim Weston sings a funky version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," complete with Hammond organ stylings. Absolutely no one stands up; instead we see a listless crowd people picking at their food or with their arms folded. Many have the look of someone trapped in front of an interminable commercial. Not long after, the Reverend Jesse Jackson comes onstage. His goal: to work the crowd up to the same chant that Amiri Baraka had used in Gary, Indiana six months earlier at the first National Black Political Convention, where black politicians and intellectuals converged to brainstorm an independent path for black politics, untethered to the dominant two-party system. Building to his climax, Jackson announces that "in Watts, we have shifted from 'Burn, baby, burn' to 'Learn, baby, learn'," from "bedbugs and dog ticks to community control and politics." Then he leads the crowd through his "I am somebody" litany, summoning almost one-hundred thousand black people to hold their fists in the air and proclaim that it's "nation time". The oratory does its magic: people don't just hold their fists in the air; they pump them to the cadence of "Nation Time". By the time Kim Weston returns to the stage to sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the "black national anthem," the zombie spectators of "The Star-Spangled Banner" have revealed themselves to be proud, steely-eyed citizens of another nation. It's a jaw-dropping demonstration of how quickly, in 1972, disenchantment could still be flipped into engagement and action. 15

4. Polyester and the abstract truth

"We all know what we're here for...We're here to commemorate a revolution that started the movement and was one of the milestones in black pride," says director Melvin Van Peebles from the stage, in a moment that framed the meaning of the concert for its audience just as Pryor's prologue frames the meaning of the film for its viewer. In retrospect, it's a surprising statement, one that underlines how the Watts riot could feel, at Wattstax, like a watershed rather than a denouement: Van Peebles felt no need to dignify the Watts riot with references to the Civil Rights movement that preceded it, but instead insisted upon the igniting effect of the riot upon the Black Power movement alone. Then, in an even more telling gesture, he connected the spirit of insurrection to the spirit of celebration in the Coliseum. "Some folks may find it a little strange that we laugh, we sing and we joke," he said. "But we're doing our thing the black way to commemorate."

"Doing our thing the black way": this is of course a major impulse, perhaps the major impulse, behind Wattstax's performances, which celebrate the peace achieved in the fold of the black church (The Emotions' "Peace Be Still"), the badness of John Shaft, black man extraordinaire (the Bar-Kays' "Son of Shaft" and Isaac Hayes's "Shaft"), and the joy of feeling the funk (Rufus Thomas's "Do the Funky Chicken"). But it's the stylization of blackness, rather than some essence of blackness, that makes the greater impression over the course of the film: blackness as artifice the embrace of hyperbole, masking, and other ironic forms of self-presentation tends to trump, or at least shadow, any claim made for what it really means to be black. For this reason, the film's promoters were right to request "bizarre" dress for Wattstax's premiere, and Van Peebles was right to connect the commemoration of the Watts riot to laughter and joking and right, too, to make the claim while wearing mirrored shades and a red, yellow and green headband because the black aesthetic in Wattstax is in no small part a trickster's aesthetic.

Pryor's role in the film as commentator and trickster-in-chief at once hedges the film's political militancy and deepens it: hedges it in that he holds up the movement itself for mockery; deepens it in that his comedy reveals a movement capable of self-satire, willing to laugh at the games that ideology plays. The film's center of gravity rests on the black demand for respect a demand that begins with black people respecting themselves. We hear that demand in Jesse Jackson's "I Am Somebody" litany; we hear it in the Staples Singers' "Respect Yourself"; and the film gives the viewer a montage of black self-respect in the culture-at-large an "Africa Is the Beginning" mural, a black beauty pageant, a black Santa Claus, a pair of Black Muslim women leaving a mosque.

This montage is followed, though, by a Pryor monologue that gives the film an equally powerful center of levity. "I got ultra-black for a while," he says, then spoofs the same Black Muslim organization that had just served in the film as an image of black self-respect: "The brothers would be rapping. I never knew what they were saying, but the brother be having emotion." Ventriloquizing the brother, Pryor's talk turns belabored, halting, as if the language is speaking the rapper rather than the other way around: "Now you eat a piece of pork, you don't realize the subtlifications of this individuality's prospect. What the man trying to lay on you pork-i-tis you will not understand because the trichinosis of your mind will not relinquish the thought of individuality." A master of comic timing, Pryor follows this overdrawn spiel with an absurdly quick snap: "You know what I mean?" Of course we don't and the joke is deepened by the fact that the brother is ostensibly speaking about white attempts at mind control. 16

The film's trickster vision figures too in its short section on the soul handshake, which appears just before Isaac Hayes closes the film with his number "Soulville."

Ted Lange later famous as The Love Boat's bartender, here just an ordinary brother at a restaurant explains how the "power shake" builds a common sense of black identity: "I can go anywhere in the United States of America and give him a power shake, and there's unity there. There's a beauty there that I can communicate with this brother. You can take black people of many different shades, [who] have obviously come from different parts of Africa over the course of this country's existence, but we are all together, we are one." Yet Richard Pryor is there, too, to trouble the waters to suggest that these gestures of soulfulness are, through their stylization, designed to exclude as well as include. "Niggers change their shit all the time," he says.

You be meeting the guy:  "Thunk-bam-spun-spun" [shaking in the middle, then progressively lower].

But then six months later, the shit done change: "chee-pun-chee-up-hunh!" You all down here [reaching down to the ground, then pulls himself up quickly]: "Hey-hup-ho-chup!"

And if you don't do that, then you ain't no nigger. The dude be "You ain't black, motherfucker. You didn't know how to do [points to both ears, points down, then slits his throat]."

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Pryor on the soul handshake

 

As he does throughout the film, Pryor affectionately mocks what's imagined as a black tendency towards self-styling a tendency that, in six months' time, can turn a relatively simple sequence of gestures into a byzantine gymnastic ritual, virtually impossible to synch up. The mockery is affectionate in that Pryor places himself within the charmed circle of hyperbole and black identity itself, but there can be no mistaking his satiric jab at identity politics gone wrong, gone militant in a way that does a disservice to political militancy. Notably, the soul handshake becomes not only ever more complicated but also ever more army-like and violent, culminating in a doubly suggestive gesture of a slit throat: it's unclear if we're supposed to understand the slit throat as the punishment one incites for not being black, or as the ironic final gesture of this hyperbolic soul handshake self-stylization gone haywire, into the realm of self-assassination. As is typical in Wattstax, the film itself shares Pryor's ironic sensibility though not his darkest insights: its montage of soul handshakes ends with an elaborate choreographed routine between two male dance partners, who shake their heads and hands at lightning speed, until they're so pumped by the shake that they literally pump off the ground together at the routine's end. The film allows us, then, to see the soul shake in its many manifestations as self-evident sign and as impossible countersign, as common greeting and as uncommon street theater.

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Soul shakes

The black aesthetic, as revealed in Wattstax, is like the soul shake: a dialectic often posing as an essence; a process of collaborative stylization that, paradoxically, believes in hyperbole as a form of truth-telling. Nowhere is this more clear than in the film's attention to fashion, which balances its interest in quotidian scenes of, for instance, a mail-carrier unlocking a mailbox or a young boy rolling a tire through a vacant lot. Wattstax is divided, one might say, between scenes of unglamorous cinema verité, which underscore the constraints on black life in Watts, and scenes of extravagant self-display, in which those constraints are waved away with the rustle of white fringe, the brush of blue mink, and the jangle of decorative gold chains.

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Wattstax fashions

"What You See Is What You Get" is the motto of Wattstax's verité overture, and the song serves to telegraph the idea that black identity is real rather than plastic, emotionally authentic rather than contrived and deceptive. The film as a whole gives that motto another inflection, however. "What you see" may be all you can expect to "get," Wattstax suggests, so pay attention to the contrivances, for that's where the abstract truth takes on flesh or, more to the point, polyester and spandex. In the film's culminating performance, Isaac Hayes assumes the stage like a boxer entering the ring, wearing a full-length, swirling pink-and-brown cape that disguises the shape of his body. Then this "Black Moses" throws off his cape and we see his body both triumphantly revealed and ceremoniously disguised again: topless except for a weave of gold chains, which extend down his chest, thicken into a belt, then descend to his knees; his lower half encased in skin-tight hot pink leggings. He's a self-consciously costumed messiah so free that he can flaunt the signs of his people's slavery, so manly that he can use hot pink to draw attention to his manhood.

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Isaac Hayes as costumed messiah

What does it mean, then, that at a high point in life of Black Power, fashion became an indispensible and inescapable part of the movement? That dandyism and political vanguardism were so explicitly linked? Angela Davis has famously criticized those who would reduce her to her Afro and there were certainly many, like journalist Tom Wolfe, who focused on radical chic to avoid radical critique. 17

But Wattstax suggests that fashion had its uses, and not just for conservative commentators looking to trivialize the movement. In perhaps the most thoughtful review of Wattstax at the time of its release, Wall Street Journal critic Joy Gould Boyum noted that it was through fashion that the film made "its most telling points about black self-awareness and the strategies with which blacks have protected themselves in a hostile environment." Channeling Ralph Ellison but unburdened by his hostility to cultural nationalism, Boyum wrote that

[T]hese outrageous costumes (and so self-consciously outrageous: "Ain't I clean?" Rufus Thomas asks his audience as he shows off his mannered pink outfit) seem to work as do the jokes and music as ambiguous forms of defense against suffering and its sources. Heavily theatricalized, they are carefully wrought masks making invisible and unavailable the vulnerable self behind them. Yet, they are more than camouflage. Again, like black humor, they are a way of expressing skepticism about the reality and reliability of experience. And finally, they are forms of parody. 18

The fashion parade, on- and offstage: Rufus Thomas:

The fashion parade, on- and offstage: Rufus Thomas: "Ain't I clean?"; a zebra-print couple

Fashion as emotional camouflage, as an expression of skepticism, as parody of upper-class modes of "dress-up": Boyum quickly sketched some of the deeper uses of fashion in stitching together the huge crowd at the Coliseum, and in bringing that crowd to the openly political moment of self-recognition when they all chanted "I Am Somebody" together.

In her catalogue of fashion's uses, though, Boyum missed one essential aspect of black fashion, c. 1972 how it allowed working-class black people to style themselves as visionaries. Harvey Henderson, the saxophonist for the Bar-Kays, drew out this aspect in his introduction to the group's performance at Wattstax. Wearing a towering grey afro wig, a gold collar with jeweled inlay, a midriff-exposing white vest and silver bracelets on his biceps, he told the crowd: "It's been said many times, many places, that freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude. But we would like to invite each of you to go with us and perhaps you will see a side of life you've never seen before." With their elaborate dress, the musicians of Wattstax were declaring themselves "out there" and inviting the multitude to join them on a mind-expanding quest for freedom. And the spectacular fashions of many in the crowd suggested that they were already there, easing down freedom's road.

Bar-KaysIntro

Harvey Henderson of the Bar-Kays: "Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude"

5. Post-production: "rated 'MF' in the black community"

Wattstax was, in a purely demographic sense, an insider's festival: black musicians performing for a crowd that was, according to camera footage, about 99 percent black. But the producers of Wattstax the film, David Wolper and Stax's Al Bell, hoped that the film could cross over to a larger white audience while at the same time remaining true to the community-oriented spirit of the original concert.

It was a tough balancing act and an even tougher sell, one that confronted a crucial turn in early-'70s culture and politics: the hardening of white-ethnic identity and the rise of what historian Rick Perlstein has called "Nixonland." In 1972, Nixon had secured his re-election through a combination of patriotic pageantry and tough-on-crime rhetoric that Wattstax, with its black working-class subjects at the fore, pointedly refused, and it makes sense that a white public polarized along lines of racial resentment and gravitating to the suburbs would have trouble paying money to see blacks "do their thing" in the inner city. The Christian Science Monitor called Wattstax a "unique cinema undertaking" that was "stirring sharp controversy among moviegoers. At first sampling, blacks love it. College students are bound to flock to it. White liberals feel they 'should' like it. But middle America could ignore it in droves." "Money slants blurry," reported Variety in its coverage of the film's commercial prospects. 19

Bell and Wolper rose to the challenge with a two-pronged strategy to sell the film, in what a Columbia Pictures ad executive called "one of the biggest promotional efforts in Columbia's history." One prong involved mobilizing the black audience. Stax's Larry Shaw had previously planned the publicity campaigns for Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft the one-two punch of the blaxploitation boom and he contracted with local black-owned publicity firms in Chicago, New York and Washington D.C. to help promote the film. More strikingly, Shaw organized a series of Wattstax premieres across the country, each framed as a benefit for local causes. "Instead of ripping blacks off," Shaw explained, "every program we conceived was geared to helping the community. We wanted to bring the same sensitivity to our [premieres] that we used in putting the film together." In New York City, the premiere benefited the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; in Philadelphia, the Black Political Forum's education fund; in Atlanta, the Southern Rural Action Group; in Chicago, Jesse Jackson's PUSH organization. When the ratings board slapped an R-rating on the film for its liberal use of profanity a decision that Pryor lambasted as the equivalent of saying "'cause you niggers talk differently you're obscene" the film's producers struck back with a promotional slogan that played to this inside audience. "'Wattstax' is rated 'R' by a motion picture jury," the ad proclaimed, "but in the Black community, 'Wattstax' is rated 'MF'. 'Magnificent Film'!" 20

Meanwhile Wattstax's team aimed to soften what they perceived as kneejerk white resistance to the film. Mel Stuart offered that "if we can only get [middle-class whites] in the theater, they'll enjoy it...They'll see it isn't one of those raised fists things a diatribe." (Strange words from a director who chose to end his film with the image of a raised fist, but suggestive of how Stuart saw his film as anything but a polemic.) A general advertisement for the film was headlined "You Can't Judge a Movie by Its Color" a riff both on "You can't judge a book by its cover" and on the early language of the Civil Rights Movement and emphasized the film's cross-racial appeal: "[F]ilm critics everywhere, black and white, are stating that WATTSTAX is a motion picture that will be enjoyed by all movie-goers." As part of a larger effort to woo white college students, the film's producers even sent Mel Stuart to a local premiere in Madison, Wisconsin. 21

In a related move, Wattstax's producers promoted the film as an important civic event one that they believed, with the fervor common to zealots and publicists, could attract support across the entire political spectrum, from the Nixon White House to African diplomats representing revolutionary regimes. At an early screening of the film in Washington, D.C., the president of Columbia Pictures hosted members of the Nixon Administration, the Senate and the House of Representatives. At a first special screening in New York City, the producers invited officials from the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congress of African People, and the New York State Department of Correctional Services; at a later screening, held at the United Nations, they attracted over fifty dignitaries from the Organization for African Unity, representing nations such as Boumédienne's Algeria, Kenyatta's Kenya, Qaddifi's Libya, Senghor's Senegal, and Idi Amin's Uganda. For the film's main premiere at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, Stax's Larry Shaw proposed that California Governor Ronald Reagan (!) co-host the event with Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, California's first black congresswoman a bipartisan pair who shared little other than the fact that their political careers had been given a sizable boost from the Watts riots, Burke through the expectations it produced in the black community and Reagan through the backlash it provoked. 22

This publicity campaign may seem utterly quixotic it's easy to imagine Reagan falling asleep during Wattstax, or Richard Nixon scoffing at the idea of a black national anthem ("there has never in history been an adequate black nation, and they are the only race of which this is true," he told his chief of staff in 1969) but at the time Wattstax's creative team were seeking to build an unprecedented audience for a black-themed documentary and seizing every opening they could find. One such opening was provided by the Nixon administration: ever Machiavellian, Nixon had found it to his advantage to leave a mixed record on civil rights. He radically increased funding for the enforcement of Civil Rights laws (his hand forced by a Democratic Congress); plugged black capitalism through a newly-created Office of Minority Business Enterprise (part of his strategy of draining support from Black Power, but still a shot-in-the-arm to black-operated businesses like Stax); and sponsored an early form of affirmative action in the construction industry (part of his strategy to put white ethnics and working-class blacks at odds, but still a recognition of justice due). He may have also blocked implementation of busing the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, no radical, said Nixon was on the side of the "enemies of little black children" but his record in full suggested that the Republican Party had not yet ceded the agenda of urban America to the Democratic Party. Who knew maybe the ears of the GOP could be bent to the voices of Watts and the music of Stax? 23

Actually, no; the elephant wasn't listening. Reagan appears to have declined the invitation to emcee the premiere (Burke chaired the event by herself); and while the event did attract a smattering of Nixon administration officials, including the assistant secretary of Housing Health and Urban Development, a cabinet department with obvious connections to the film's subject matter, there was no endorsement on par, say, with Woodrow Wilson's personal recommendation of Birth of a Nation. And generally speaking, whites stayed away from Wattstax the film, just as they had stayed away from Wattstax the concert. Box office returns were reasonable but disappointing, especially given the critical raves from leading newspapers and newsweeklies. Two months after its Los Angeles premiere, a Columbia Pictures vice president in charge of publicity wrote to Mel Stuart to brainstorm how to attract a white audience to Wattstax, and ended his letter with "Let's start praying now that the Madison, Wisconsin engagement becomes a huge success." The Madison premiere appears to have generated one small piece in the city's local paper. Wattstax was stalled. 24

Yet the success of Wattstax should not be measured by the number of whites it brought to the box office, no more than the legacy of the Black Power movement should be judged by the number of whites it recruited en masse into its ranks. Originally a commemoration of the 1965 Watts riot, Wattstax has itself turned into a commemoration of the Black Power movement at its early-'70s cultural zenith, when an established Hollywood producer and a black businessman could think it was a wonderful idea to bring together welfare mothers and Zsa Zsa Gabor, gang members and Republican operatives, all to watch working-class black Americans strut, sing and talk back to the camera.

For many of Wattstax's players, it marked a new beginning, not an end, and their scattered trajectories in just the five years after Wattstax suggest the many fates of the black aesthetic. Richard Pryor went on to balance, nervously, a career as the comic laureate of black America with a career as a crossover Hollywood star; cameraman Larry Clark, part of the Third World-engaged "L.A. School" of black filmmakers, went on to direct Passing Through (1977), a poetic meditation on jazz and its musicians with a soundtrack by Horace Tapscott; actor Ted Lange, co-screenwriter of Passing Strange, became best known for his role as Isaac the bartender (1977-86) on The Love Boat, ever-hip and -congenial with his iconic "two-finger-drop" greeting; and David Wolper was inspired by his contact with black American culture to put his considerable muscle behind Roots (1977), the hit miniseries that translated the traumatic history of slavery for primetime TV and sparked an American cultural obsession with genealogy. It's hard to generalize about this diverse set of involvements, other than to say that, in retrospect, Wattstax seems to have brought together a remarkable cultural coalition, just as the concert itself acted as a catch-basin for a remarkably large cross-section of black Angelenos. 25

"If what you're looking for is real loving," The Dramatics sang in the song that framed Wattstax, "then what you see is what you get." Many Americans, it turned out, were not so interested in the real loving offered by Wattstax, nor in the larger reality disclosed by the film. But some were interested in that reality, or at least willing to be hooked into that reality by the ingenuity that stylized it to extremes and many still are. With unmistakable flair of its own, Wattstax does the neat trick of leading its viewer into a dynamic sense of black America's enduring realities and its larger-than-life, XXL imaginations. It reveals a "black aesthetic," still very much with us today in hip-hop and elsewhere, that brought authenticity and irony together in a subtle if decidedly outrageous dance.

Scott Saul teaches American literature and history at UC-Berkeley, where he is an associate professor of English. He is the author of the biography Becoming Richard Pryor (HarperCollins, 2014).

 

 

 

 

  1. "'Wattstax'" to Open at Music Center's Ahmanson Theater," Hollywood Reporter, January 19, 1973; Marvene Jones, "The V.I.P.'s", Hollywood Reporter, February 6, 1973; Norma Lee Browning, "Is This An Offer Brando Can't Refuse?" Chicago Tribune, Feb. 12, 1973; Leah Davis, "Wattstax Premiere," SOUL, March 12, 1973; Marilyn Beck, "Cream of Filmland Society, Watts Residents to Preview Wattstax," San Jose News, Dec. 5, 1972 all in Box 131, Folder 1, David L. Wolper Collection, David L. Wolper Center for the Study of the Documentary, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Calif. (subsequently abbreviated as DLWC). Invitation list and materials in Box 201, Folder 10, DLWC. Beth Ann Krier, "'Wattstax' Outdoes Premiere-Goers," Los Angeles Times, pp. F1, F8. Bradley and Pryor photo from Sydney Reibscheid, "Wattstax Documentary Views Revival of Watts," Los Angeles Daily Journal, Feb. 26, 1973, p. 9. []
  2. On the mechanics and meaning of Bradley's election, see Raphael Sonenshein, Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993). The statistics on black employment can be found in Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 224, alongside a skeptical and well-informed take on the Bradley administration's cultural policy. There is no full-dress biography of Pryor; for shorter but incisive treatments of his career, see Mel Watkins, On the Real Side: The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994); Glenda Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). []
  3. On the long history of the interrelationship of black politics and black fashion, see Monica Miller, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009); Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994). []
  4. Gerald Horne, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1995); Scott Saul, "Gridlock of Rage: The Watts and Rodney King Riots," in Companion to Los Angeles, eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise (Malden, Mass.: John Wiley and Sons, 2010), pp. 147-167; Widener, pp. 90-114, 153-186. []
  5. Ray Rogers, "Gaiety Replaces Terror as Charcoal Alley Glows Anew," Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1966, pp. 1, 14; "Watts to Open Its Troubled Festival," Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1969, p. A12; Lawrence Kaggwa, "5,000 Witness Parade, Windup of Week-Long Watts Festival," Los Angeles Times, August 11, 1969, p. SG1. []
  6. Lance Williams, "Wattstax: Giving Something Back to Community," Los Angeles Times, August 20, 1972, pp. X1, X16; Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998), p. 403, passim. []
  7. Williams, "Wattstax: Giving Something Back to Community," pp. X1, X16; Ward, Just My Soul Responding, p. 403. []
  8. David L. Wolper, Producer (New York: Scribner's, 2003). []
  9. Producer, p. 102; Elana Roston, "Wattstax," New Times L.A., July 29-August 4, 1999, in "Wattstax" clippings file, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, Calif. []
  10. Roston, "Wattstax," interview with Mel Stuart, July 16, 2009, Beverly Hills, Calif. []
  11. Interview with Stuart, July 16, 2009; Wattstax publicity brochure, p. 1, Box 131, Folder 10, DLWC; "Wattstax '72' Film Shot by 90% Black Crews; 250G Budget for Docu," Variety, Sept. 27, 1972, Box 201, Folder 1, DLWC; Larry Clark commentary on Wattstax DVD. []
  12. Interview with Stuart, July 16, 2009; Bridget Byrne, "Celebration Turned into Social Commentary," Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, March 4, 1973, p. D1. []
  13. Interview with Stuart, July 16, 2009. The site of Pryor's performanceidentified at the Summit Club in Wattstax's recordshas been mistakenly linked to the Summit Club of Hollywood. However, this Summit Club was closed by 1972; the Summit Club of Pryor's performance was located at the intersection of La Brea and Stocker in the upscale black enclave of Baldwin Hills. []
  14. For a similar interpretation of the riots as, in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words, the "language of the unheard" see Johnny Otis, Listen to the Lambs (New York: W.W. Norton, 1968), and the essays collected in Robert Fogelson, ed., Mass Violence in America: The Los Angeles Riots (New York: Arno Press, 1969). []
  15. On the 1972 Gary Convention and Amiri Baraka, see Komozi Woodard, A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). []
  16. Joy Gould Boyum, "A Bit More Than Just Music at a Black Concert," Wall Street Journal, Feb. 26, 1973, p. 12. The reviews of Wattstax tended to praise Pryor as the key to the film's success; Boyum's review is remarkable in connecting Pryor's comedy to the ironic tone of Wattstax as a whole. One notable exception to the chorus of praise for Pryor came from the white countercultural press: Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone that Pryor was "generally amusing, although he occasionally seems pretentious and condescending to his audience"an accusation that is hard to credit, but may derive from the hard edge of Pryor's impersonations of winos, junkies and political militants. See "Watts Documentary: Passable," Rolling Stone, May 10, 1973, in Wattstax production file, Margaret Herrick Library. []
  17. Angela Davis, "Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia," in The Angela Davis Reader, ed. Joy James (Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 1998), 273-78. On Black Power and the use of 'radical chic' to trivialize the movement, see Michael Staub, "Black Panthers, New Journalism, and the Rewriting of the Sixties," Representations 57 (Winter 1997). []
  18. Boyum, p. 12. []
  19. Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner, 2008); Curtis Sitomer, "...and a musical wander through Watts," Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 1973, in Box 201, Folder1, DLWC; "Wolperized Black-Angled Ballyhoo for 'Wattstax': Columbia's Angles," Variety, February 7, 1973, in Box 201, Folder 1, DLWC. []
  20. "Wolperized Black-Angled Ballyhoo for 'Wattstax'"; "'Wattstax' Benefits Schomburg," San Diego Voice News and Viewpoint, March 21, 1973; Joey Johnson, "New Firm Promotes 'Wattstax' Benefit," Philadelphia Tribune, March 24, 1973; Chuck Posey, "It's a Hit," Chicago Courier, March 3, 1973; Sandra Haggerty, "Rating Movie 'R' Seen as White Racist Insult," Tuscon Daily Citizen, June 6, 1973 all in Box 201, Folder 1, DLWC; advertisement in Box 131, Folder 9, DLWC []
  21. Sitomer, "...and a musical wander through Watts"; advertisement in Box 131, Folder 9, DLWC; Marvin Cook, "WATTSTAX: An Honest, Witty Slice of Black Life," Capitol Times (Madison, Wisc.), May 2, 1973, in Box 131, Folder 9, DLWC. []
  22. "Columbia Screens 'Wattstax,'" New York Voice (Jamaica, N.Y.), Jan. 5, 1973, in Box 131, Folder 9, DLWC; "Wattstax," Richmond Afro-American, May 12, 1973, in Box 131, Folder 9, DLWC; Larry Shaw, letter to Robert Ferguson, January 3, 1973, in Box 201, Folder 6, DLWC; Leah Davis, "Wattstax Premiere." []
  23. Hugh Davis Graham, "Richard Nixon and Civil Rights: Explaining an Enigma," Presidential Studies Quarterly 26:1 (Winter 1996), 93-106 (Nixon quoted on p. 98; Wilkins quoted on p. 94). []
  24. Leah Davis, "Wattstax Premiere"; Robert S. Ferguson, letter to Mel Stuart, April 2, 1973, in Box 131, Folder 9, DLWC. []
  25. On Passing Strange, see Steven Isoardi, The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2006). On the "L.A. School", see Widener, Black Arts West; Ntongela Masilela, "The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers," in Black American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara (New York: Routledge, 1993), 107-17. On Roots, see Wolper, Producer; Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001). []