Video: Watts ’65 in pop culture

Written by
From Wattstax. (L-R Schlitz Beer Rep, Jesse Jackson and Al Bell)

This week on Press Play, we’re using the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots to talk about what has changed in the South L.A. community, and what has stayed the same. 

The 1965 Watts Riots didn’t only influence politics and policy, its legacy seeped into pop culture.

In 1972, on the seventh anniversary of the uprising, the L.A. Coliseum hosted a daylong music festival called Wattstax. Referred to by some as the black Woodstock, the concert featured artists from Memphis’ Stax record label and was hosted partly by a young Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Here’s Jackson reading a poem and leading the crowd in a call-and-response (the footage is from the 1973 documentary “Wattstax”):

And here’s Wattstax headliner Isaac Hayes, taking the stage to perform the theme song from the film “Shaft:”

And here’s Hayes’ even more elaborate performance of the same song from the Academy Awards earlier that year. He’s wearing a nearly identical outfit made of chains, but this time is accompanied by dancers:

Watts became a kind of cultural shorthand for black urban life, says USC film professor Todd Boyd. References to the neighborhood started to crop up in pop culture, evidence of a widespread name recognition that Watts wouldn’t have had if not for the riots. The 1970s sitcom “Sanford and Son” took place in Watts, starring comedian Redd Foxx as a grumpy widower living there with his son. If you’ve never seen it, here’s a primer:

Then in the ’80s and ’90s, with the rise of gangsta rap, Compton gained prominence as the cultural reference point that Watts once was. And this weekend, “Straight Outta Compton,” opens in theaters.

Find all of our Watts coverage here.