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Berkeley Professor Scott Saul talks about Richard Pryor, Wattstax, and 1970’s LA

Last week, Berkeley American Studies and English Professor Scott Saul spoke with the UCSC Urban Studies Research Cluster (USRC) about Richard Pryor and his role in the documentary film Wattstax. Saul analyzes Wattstax as a work of documentary filmmaking, as well as a representation of black political and cultural life in 1970s Los Angeles. Of particular interest to the urban studies research cluster, Saul describes the ways in which the documentary captures a mosaic of images from the Watts community just seven years after the Watts riots. Saul’s examination of Wattstax explores its representation of black culture, use of Pryor as a tragic-comic figure, and the significance of 1970’s Los Angeles in the black imaginary.

Wattstax documents the iconic 1972 concert, held at the Los Angeles coliseum, on the Anniversary of the Watts riots. The riots, which killed 34 people, stemmed from the mistreatment of a black motorist by white police but exploded from the power keg of race relations across the nation.  The concert was planned as an event to celebrate the strength of the Watts and larger Los Angeles community. The music and messages of the event spoke to black power, play, and perseverance through hardship. The documentary Wattstax attempts to record the mood and music of the event, while situating it squarely within the larger struggles of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Saul’s talk started with a textual analysis of the beginning of the documentary, noting the juxtaposition of the opening images from “ordinary life” in the Watts community, such as girls waiting for buses and men in cafes, with more potently political images, all set to “What You See Is What You Get” by The Dramatics. Saul’s close reading of the film helped highlight how the Wattstax documentary operates as more than footage of the concert; it pulls together snapshots of life in the Watts community as representative of larger political struggles.

However, it is the film’s narrator, Richard Pryor, that is Professor Saul’s driving interest. He is currently working on “Becoming Richard Pryor” which will be the first critical biography of the comedian-entertainer. The study explores the trajectory of Pryor’s artistic development in conjunction with a set of larger historical trends: the emergence of the counterculture and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements; the debates over the “declining inner city” and the “declining working class” in 1970s culture; and the challenge posed by New Hollywood to the older studio system. As a biographer of Pryor, Saul is interested in the way in which Pryor acts as a “Shakespearian character”, using humor as a means of teasing out contradictions of race relations. Pryor’s comedic presence plays counterpoint to the more serious subject matter of the film.

Saul also spoke with the USRC about Pryor’s early life in the city of Peoria, Illinois. Just like his treatment of L.A. in the early 1970’s, Saul explained how the flows of capital, labor, resources, and desires shaped the social geography of the city in the 1930s and 40s.  He described how the underground economy of Peoria sometimes opened up surprising opportunities, as well as dangers, for disenfranchised people.

It is Saul’s impressive ability to link urban context with wider historical and cultural movements that made him an important speaker for the members of the urban studies research cluster, as well as the other UCSC students and faculty who attended his talk. With an ear for a good story and a sincere appreciation for his research subject, Saul talk was both entertaining and provocative.

Urban Studies is a research cluster at the UCSC Institute for Humanities Research, funded by the UC Humanities Network.

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