Wattstax is a musical documentary hosted by Richard Pryor that challenges you to propel your common morality back in time to test it against a known event for values conditioning.  Who are you and what do you believe?  Would your burn down your neighborhood to make a political point?  How are you protected from the hangman’s noose?

The 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles burned down a neighborhood, changed the core of the city forever, and set the stage of expectation for the Rodney King Riot in 1992.

Wattstax, released in 1973, is a fantastical time machine of bookended reality set in the midst of those two historic riots:  Trying to comprehend while unwittingly predicting the second.

Wattstax was a live concert held in the Rose Bowl to try to help the Black community come to terms with the Watts riot and their place in an emerging society.  Here’s the trailer for the movie:

My favorite performance is Luther Ingram singing — If Loving You is Wrong (I don’t Want to Be Right) — because he reminds us of our own, flawed, humanity and his voice is crisp and clear and absolutely, righteously, tormented:

In addition to enjoying some outstanding musical performances, I also learned a lot about the Black Experience in America during the cut-in interviews.

The first thing I discovered is that — “nigger” — was just beginning to find its political roots.  There are the obligatory stories about first being labeled with that word, but one story was particularly striking.

One dark-skinned Black man told us a story about his childhood.  He, and his younger, lighter-skinned brother, were having dinner with their White mother when the lighter-skinned brother said, “I’m not a nigger, because I’m not Black.”  The boys’ mother, without missing a beat said, “That’s funny, because both of my sons have a Black father and both of my sons are niggers.”

We might feel our guts curdle with that sort of blunt language from a mother to her boys, but that White mother was cutting two nooses with a single slice:  She didn’t want one son putting himself above his brother based solely on skin color; and she didn’t want one brother seeking physical revenge for an uppity cruelty.  That was a smart mother who not only understood the emotional landscape in store for her sons, but she also knew how to deal with the incursion against civility happening right there in her home.

The relationship between Black women and Black men was also a fascination as the crimes of history still have a stinging resonance today.  One woman told a story about her father, and that if a stranger — a White Stranger — came to the door, her father would hide in the back room while her mother would answer the door and deal with the visitor.  It was always the Black woman’s role in the American South, we are told, to protect the Black man from a lynching.  It is her duty to fend off any threat or perceived negativity — bill collectors, police, government workers, etc. — by being the public face of the family while her Black husband hides in humility to avoid any confrontation that might lead to a tree or a jail cell.

One thing I never understood about the Rodney King Riots was the fact that Blacks burned down their own neighborhood instead of going into the traditionally White neighborhoods to get their revenge.  Why riot in a ghetto and not Beverly Hills where the power and money and influence lives?

Wattstax provides the answer to my Rodney King Riot Conundrum of 1992 — in 1973.  The 1965 Watts riots happened in Watts, and “not Encino” as one guy told us, because “Encino doesn’t sell me Grade D meat at Grade A prices.”

Now I understand.  When you are angry and want revenge, you want do directly punish those who have wronged you.  There’s no interest in revenge against the abstract.  You want to take a sledgehammer to the front window of the local butcher who has lied to you and overcharged you for a generation.

There was also a common thread in Wattstax that riots and the destruction of public property and burning buildings — are the only ways places like Watts ever get a chance at gentrification.  The city won’t help fix the infrastructure and “White money” won’t get invested into the community, so the community is forced, beyond their wishes, every couple of decades or so, to rise up, and riot to be heard and to force change and to level the neighborhood so it can, at last, be built up anew.

Finally, I had no idea Ted Lange — the “yessa massa” stereotypical hucking and shucking Black bartender Isaac on “The Love Boat” from 1977-1986 — was a Black Radical and a star of Wattstax!

Tedd Lange is one tough mutha in Wattstax and you can get a taste of his bite in this clip:

What a difference a few years makes.  Somehow, Ted was able to transform himself from supercilious Wattstax radical in 1973 to silly simpleton Isaac on The Love Boat four years later.  Sometimes money tempers politics and oftentimes fame assuages the disenfranchised.

Wattstax is a historical gem of a film because it wholly entertains as it teaches and we are let into a world many of us have forgotten ever existed.  Black Rage is palpable and dangerous if left unabided and without covenants — and the riot warnings still boil within the frames of Wattstax 37 years after its release.

6 Comments

    1. It’s a great movie, Gordon. It was re-released in 2003 on the 30th anniversary of the concert in 5.1 Dolby surround sound and an improved visual codec. It looks and sounds fantastic.

      Ted Lange is obviously a fantastic actor. We see the real Ted in Wattstax. On the Love Boat… he was playing a silly shell and he played it really well. He is a man of terrific substance and I wish he found his mainstream popularity in his real self instead of in his perceived performance.

      I learned a lot about the relational dyads in the Black community. Black Man confronting Black Man = fine. If, however, a White Person is added to the mix, the Black Woman steps forward to take the communication lead. Her job is to be the protector of the family core against community outsiders.

      I always thought the reason so many Black men are so deeply attached to their mothers is because their fathers were not in their lives and not living in the home. Now, I don’t think that’s it — I think it’s more about the mother taking the societal heat and shielding her son against all comers — and that seems to make much more sense from an American heritage perspective.

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