Skip to content

A Los Angeles Primer: Watts

People turn up in Watts with all kinds of expectations, most of them fearful. Not-so-recent films and even less recent news stories having prepared them for the worst, they still find themselves unready for the most unsettling quality of all: the way that, despite living under the burden of such a loaded place name, it still exudes to the visitor a kind of placeless anonymity. Clive James tried in a 1979 piece for the Observer, writing that “Watts isn’t even a ghetto. It’s nothing. The inhabitants of Chinatown, Little Mexico, and Little Japan at least know where they live. But Watts is Little Nowhere.” All of this does injustice, of course, to the countless real lives lived there, existences of the type I first came to know through Charles Burnett’s detail-rich, Watts-set 1977 piece of Los Angeles neorealism “Killer of Sheep.” The first time I watched the movie, I didn’t recognize its location, and indeed, Burnett doesn’t underscore it. But when I told “Los Angeles Plays Itself” director Thom Andersen that, he rightly asked, “Where else could it be?”

Jan Morris, even more of a world-traveling literary product of the British Empire, tried capturing this quality of Watts three years earlier, in 1976. “All around are the unpretentious homes of black people, so that you might easily suppose yourself to be in some African railway town, in the Egyptian delta perhaps. Few cars go by. You can hear children playing, and dogs barking, and neighbors chatting across the way.” The description suits many scenes from “Killer of Sheep”, or indeed, any of my own walks around Watts. I tend to go inward from the Blue Line train station, usually unbothered by human, animal, or vehicle. These all exist, but they tend to pass me slowly — or I tend to pass them slowly — on my way to the Watts Coffee House, a small cash-only diner operating, unexpectedly, within the same building that houses one of the area’s many schools. There you can sit amid walls festooned with the sleeves of classic soul albums and chisel away at your vast heap of hot sausage, biscuits, gravy, grits, salmon croquettes, and chicken-fried steak.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *