It sounds like a hoax: Schlitz beer helps finance a soul music concert to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the 1965 Watts riots, and the director of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) makes a fiery black-nationalist movie about it. But Mel Stuart’s Wattstax (1973) is for real, and it delights in its own conceptual confusion: The opening scene is an argument about whether the riots ought to be celebrated at all. This argument is the start of a freewheeling conversation that is interspersed throughout the film, in which a wide range of black folks speak out on everything from white women (“They do a nigga right!”) to the secret of life (“You know what I learned? That you got to stay out of the penitentiary”). The moderator is Richard Pryor—or at least he would have been the moderator if all these people had been in the same room. As it is, there are countless commentators in countless locations, and what seems like give-and-take is actually clever editing. So Pryor gives his brilliant performance alone, in what looks like a bar, cracking up the camera crew with withering assessments of interracial rape, rude Mexicans, and “pork-itis.”
What about the music? Well, there’s some of that, too, and some of it isn’t very good: Isaac Hayes’s headline performance is utterly dull (although how often do you get to see Jesse Jackson undressing South Park‘s Chef?), and William Bell’s “Old Time Religion” is sheer torture. The day’s musical heroes are the underdogs. Pear-shaped gospel pioneer Rance Allen pleads and hollers his way through “Lying on the Truth,” a sublimely funky ode to straightening up and flying right. But no one can top the 55-year-old Rufus Thomas, who appears in a pink cape, pink shorts, and white go-go boots. He invites the boisterous crowd down onto the L.A. Coliseum’s pristine grass to dance the funky chicken, only to be informed (offstage) that no one’s allowed on the field. So without missing a beat, he coaxes the crowd back into the stands, in rhyming verse: “Don’t jump the fence, it don’t make sense,” and so on. Soon, only one man remains, and he’s swinging an umbrella wildly, daring someone to approach. Thomas tries to heckle the guy into compliance, but the guy won’t budge, so he asks the crowd to run out and carry the guy off the field. They obey, eagerly, and the concert continues. Not even Jesse Jackson has that kind of black power.