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A Riotous Event: The Making of Wattstax

By Kathleen Fairweather

Pop Staples and the Staple Singers raise their hands to the audience after wowing the crowd at Wattstax.

Twenty six years ago, Black people from all over Los Angeles, gathered together for a concert that became a landmark documentary dealing with the Black experience of those times.

Wattstax, executive-produced by David Wolper and Al Bell of Stax records, and, directed by Mel Stuart, was originally conceived as a straight concert film commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Watts riots. Stax Records recruited musical groups from their label representing some of the greatest names in gospel, blues and soul music. Billed as "A soulful expression of the living word" the event included Stax luminaries such as The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes and Johnny Taylor, and drew political activists—including the young, and relatively unknown Reverend Jesse Jackson. Advertised as a free concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum, this line-up drew almost 80,000 people and filled the stadium to capacity.

Stuart describes the making of the Wattstax film as one of his favorite directing experiences. "It wasn't just a concert film—those are boring. This was a community film and experience that documented a slice of life in the Watts community at that time."

Watts, in those days, was a predominately Black community that was politically and socially isolated from the rest of Los Angeles. Stuart credits a first-rate production team that included Stax co-producer and historian Larry Shaw, associate producer Forest Hamilton, and a predominately black film crew for giving him insider access to the Watts experience.

Stuart also cites his own background as a musician as being instrumental in shaping the film. "I looked at the concert footage and realized that the film needed more than just a staged presentation of performers,” he says. “Luckily, some of the Stax performers were unable to make it to the concert. Later, when they became available, we had them perform in the community instead of on the stage. We filmed and recorded gospel acts in churches, and rhythm and blues acts in funky night clubs. The sense of reality we captured was far greater than a staged concert performance. However, we still found that wasn't enough.

“We wanted the people of the community to comment on experiences in their own lives,” Stuart continues. “We sent crews into the streets, and into churches, barber shops and diners to talk with people about the connection between music and their existence. They also shared with us what it was like to be black in a white America. As a reflection of their views—and the times, there is one particular moment in the film which I will always remember: A young woman sang “The Star-Spangled Banner “ at the beginning of the concert, and no one I saw in the enormous audience stood up.”

“In addition to all the rich dialogue and visuals” Stuart reflects, “I felt we still needed one more element—something similar to the “chorus” in Shakespeare’s Henry V. We wanted someone who could give an overall view of the black experience. Forrest Hamilton suggested I go with him to see a little-known comic named Richard Pryor. The next night we returned to the club with a film crew and recorded two hours of extraordinary improvised comedy. This was the glue we needed to hold the film together.”

How does Stuart view the Wattstax experience today? “Looking back on the film, and, at those times now: the spirit seems much more positive then it does today. In those days, after the riots, people thought times were going to get better. That was before 'crack' ruined the community. In fact, drugs weren't even mentioned in the conversations we taped. It wasn’t the concern it is now. It seemed like a different world back then—much more innocent compared to today.”

What was the biggest production challenge for Stuart? He shakes his head for emphasis: "Music rights! I got a call from MGM one day, telling me that I couldn't use Isaac Hayes singing his hit song “Shaft.” There was some big disagreement about publishing rights and I was devastated! Isaac Hayes singing “Shaft” to 80,000 people at night in the Coliseum was my big ending to the film. I had no choice but to re-shoot a different song with Hayes on a soundstage and incorporate it into the night footage of the concert.

“As a documentary filmmaker, it bothered me that I had to create a non-event, but it was more important to end the film on a triumphant note,” Stuart maintains. “Music clearances and licensing rights have become the bane of the documentary filmmaker."

How was Wattstax financed, and how did it fare at the box office? “Dave Wolper, as usual, found the financing and a distributor,” Stuart relates. “Columbia Pictures put up the money for the documentary, and it did quite well at the box office. Unfortunately, because of music rights problems, it has not been shown in a major venue on television or released to home video. Hopefully, someday this will be cleared up so that this portrait of a time and a community can be seen by millions of people around the world.”

Kathleen Fairweather is editor of International Documentary magazine.