Monday, October 6, 2014

Ghetto Fabulous, the Soul of Black Folk, and the New Politics that, alas, Wasn't, Not Yet

In 1965 the Watts Riot in Los Angeles left 34 dead and gave rise to the Watts Summer Festival. In 1973 Wattstax premiered in LA and all the cool cats, hip pols, beautiful people and general purpose jivsters came out to strut their stuff at the birth of a new era. Ha!
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."
Stax, of course, is Stax Records, out of Memphsis, Tennessee, home of Otis Redding, Booker T. and the M. G.'s, and Isaac Hayes.
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….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."
And he got Richard Pryor to do the voice-over. He took it to the stress:
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.
The film goes on from there. Check out the whole article from Scott Saul and the good folks at Post45.

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