W hether or not you call it "blaxploitation," there was something like a riot goin' on in the American cinema of 1973. Like most riots, the outbreak of radical black film was brief: Indeed, order had been restored as early as '74 by movies like Claudine and Uptown Saturday Night, whose pro-capitalist plots argued against Black Power in favor of a piece of the action. It was also in '74 that the Shaft series went on permanent hiatus and Pam Grier's Coffy persona was literally domesticated by TV's Get Christie Love!. But in '73, the garishly costumed likes of Scream, Blacula, Scream! helped cloak such contraband as Gordon's War and The Spook Who Sat by the Door--the former articulating the "Get your house in order" agenda as regards the war on drugs, the latter conveying all-out revolution in the story of a token black officer in the CIA who uses his training to "mess with whitey."
If these two offered potent fantasies, Wattstax captured something real--and, it would appear in hindsight, something rather like the final strains of a righteous groove. More than 100,000 people attended the so-called "black Woodstock" in August 1972: a seven-hour concert at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (co-sponsored by Stax and Schlitz), culminating the Watts Summer Festival and commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. As the Stax aesthetic bridged Black Power and the almighty funk, the Staple Singers led a choir of thousands in "Respect Yourself"; the Bar-Kays came with "Son of Shaft"; and Rufus Thomas inspired a large portion of the crowd to come down from the bleachers and do the "Funky Chicken" on the field. But as the film makes plain, this was about more than music. Richard Pryor brought down the house with a style of humor that was more like social criticism, while a dashikied Rev. Jesse Jackson preached the need to shift from "'Burn baby burn' to 'Learn baby learn,'" his call-and-response rendition of "I Am Somebody" bringing unity and pride to a stadium full of brothers and sisters with fists in the air.
By today's standards (of concerts, of activism, of simply voicing race issues into a microphone), Wattstax looks so foreign as to leave one wondering what it would take for a musical "day of black awareness" in the next millennium. Would even another riot be enough to bring it about? (Rob Nelson)
The Devil in Miss Jones
Pubic exposure and political exposé came together in the summer of '73 with the release of The Devil in Miss Jones and the simultaneous disclosure that Richard Nixon had taped all his White House meetings and phone calls. Unlike now, presidential crisis and sex spectacle bore little apparent relationship to each other, although some saw the Supreme Court's long-awaited decision allowing local communities to define obscenity for themselves as a maneuver perfectly timed by Nixon appointees to divert attention away from his own misbehavior. For others, the very future of the sexual revolution was at stake in the battle over porn. The Devil in Miss Jones, marketed as a pornographic art film, meant to televise that revolution, extending sexual liberation to the "respectable" set.
Make that limited sexual liberation. The idea of making porn with a plot might have been novel, but the plot itself was tired--a lesson in deprivation and dissatisfaction from beginning to end. A frustrated virgin (Georgina Spelvin) slits her wrists; en route to hell she sells her sexual soul in order to enjoy a brief lustful binge, only to face an eternity of sexual damnation. Unbelievably, writer-director Gerard Damiano--who had just hit it big with Deep Throat--considered The Devil in Miss Jones an antidote to male-centered exploitation, claiming he intended it for a female audience. Hard to believe, since he favors point-of-view shots from the rear and studiously avoids showing men's faces during sex acts, thus allowing the viewer to substitute his own. (By contrast, the film's obligatory lesbian sequence features intimate close-ups.)
According to Damiano, faceless phalluses made this "a totally feminine film" since "it's the penis she's in love with, not the man." Consequently, along with blow jobs, Spelvin delivers unintentionally comical lines to her member co-stars, crooning, "I can feel the life, the strength, the power. I must have that power," or "I'm only content when I have you in my mouth." Life, as in art: Spelvin reportedly earned an unfulfilling $500 for her part in a film that at last count grossed $50 million. Now that's what you'd call getting fucked. (Leslie Dunlap)
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.