Wattstax was a day-long festival that happened in Los Angeles in 1973. It was known as the “Black Woodstock,” but it could not be more dissimilar to the rural New York music festival of 1969. Wattstax was organized as a celebration of the seven-year anniversary of the 1965 Watts Uprisings. It was a celebration of Black music, fashion, and success. Organized by Stax Records, the festival was organized by Black folks for Black folks, making it one of the least remembered, yet most successful events of the Black Power movement. Soul and blues artists like The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas graced the stage and moved the audience to cheer, laugh, and dance. All of the day’s celebrations were captured on film by director Mel Stuart in the 1973 documentary Wattstax.
The fashions of Wattstax range from elegant and sleek to spectacular and outrageous. Director Stuart was sure to capture not only the performer’s costumes, but also the soul style of the audience and local community. Performers like Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas incorporated clothing into their performances by wearing capes and then dramatically throwing them off to reveal their humorous and politically-charged ensembles. Audience members arrived to Wattstax in their best soul style like over-sized newsboy hats, zebra print ensembles, and African prints. The documentary’s biggest achievement perhaps is its ability to show the diversity and creative abilities of Black Americans’ creative styling abilities.
During the Black Power Movement of the early sixties and late seventies, Black people across the globe sought to achieve liberation by rejecting White beauty standards and creating a unique black aesthetic. Dr. Tanisha C. Ford explains that “soul” was a “cultural language through which people of African descent could speak about the horrors of slavery and colonialism while also serving as a source of cultural pride and political solidarity” (Liberated Threads, 6). Clothing was an essential part of Black Power, and soul style served as a way to express to the world one’s personal dedication to Black liberation. Wattstax provides a window into how each Black person constructed a liberated identity at the largest gathering of Black people at that point in Los Angeles history.
For all of its celebration of Black liberation, Wattstax not perfect. A clear hierarchy appears throughout the documentary that favors young, urban people over older rural people and most obviously, favors men over women. Few women performed at Wattstax, mainly because Stax Records simply did not represent as many female musicians. The Black women that do appear onstage are all similarly dressed in maxi dresses and afros while the male performers wear outrageous ensembles comprising of chains, neon colors, and white fringe. Indeed, Black feminists and conversation about gender equality was often excluded from Black Power events, as gender was believed to complicate the goal of racial equality. In interviews of the local community, men share their opinions on racism, politics, unemployment and policing, while women are only filmed giving their opinions on hairstyles and love. So while Wattstax was a groundbreaking event, it still represented relatively regressive gender politics.
Among the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, I’ve watched Wattstax in a different light. The film is not only an intimate glimpse into Black life during the Black Power Movement, but it is clearly relevant to the current protests of police brutality. When the festival was being planned, the venue owners and local White community feared that a gathering of 100,000 Black people would become violent. Wattstax was successful and peaceful because it was handled by an all-Black, unarmed security team. This stipulation was extremely important to the festival organizers because police forces, particularly the LAPD, had a history of racial discrimination and violence. Sadly, American policing has not improved, but has since become more militarized and continues to over-police and brutalize Black communities. Wattstax can be a lesson to us contemporary viewers of how communities can flourish when they are protected, and not violently policed. American policy-makers have tried body cameras and police reform, and Black Americans are still being arrested, imprisoned, and killed at a disproportionate rate. The police as we know it in America needs to be abolished and replaced with something more like what we see in Wattstax: an unarmed, community-based team dedicated to protecting citizens.
Watching Wattstax is a truly uplifting and joyous experience. Its detailed depiction of the audience and local community creates an intimate collective portrait of the Black Los Angeles community during the Black Power Era. In focusing on Black music, the documentary gets to the crux of Black life. Through music, Wattstax shows the beauty of Black church life, Black family, and Black creativity. Although Wattstax was not perfect in its politics, it is an important record of how Black Americans expressed their individual freedom through music and clothing. Wattstax was a small, yet significant step in the journey to towards Black liberation and should be an integral part of American history.
Fire this Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s By Gerald Horne