How Black Lives Matter in Sidney Lumet's The Wiz
The Wiz (1978)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we're always home, anywhere. - Glinda the Good
If I'm being honest with you, it's taken me far too long to write and publish this post. I knew months ago that The Wiz was a film that should be revisited and spoken about critically; not just as a cult classic '70s era musical, but as a standout political and humanitarian statement pertinent to our times.
But I put it off: week after week. I'll upset people. Someone will get mad. I thought it wasn't my place. I'd overstep my bounds. I'm a white girl. This is a black film, right? It isn't my story.
That's precisely why I needed to watch it.
Ease on Down the Road: A Little History
The Wiz was originally a Broadway musical. A retelling of the classic L. Frank Baum story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with musical numbers by Charlie Smalls and Luther Vandross. The "Super Soul Musical" was a success in 1975, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It made sense that it would be adapted to film.
Of course, that film was precluded by a Hollywood classic (possibly the Hollywood classic) - the original Technicolor masterpiece, MGM's The Wizard of Oz. A film so iconic that mentions of the title no longer suggest the series of 13 Baum novels about Dorothy and her friends, but conjure up visions of ruby slippers, flying monkeys, Judy Garland, and film itself.
When The Wiz, directed by Oscar-winning director Sidney Lumet, debuted in 1978, it was the most expensive film musical ever made. It had an all black cast. Music supervision by Quincy Jones. A young (and wonderfully vibrant) Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horn, Diana Ross, and even Richard Pryor. Think for a minute about the scale of this production, and how unprecedented that was - how unprecedented it would be now.
The Wiz flopped: Critically and commercially.
Coming off the incredible popularity of early seventies Blaxploitation films, this might have come as a shock. But the b-films of that movement were never the most expensive. They were never the studio's main focus. And maybe that's what makes the most sense about it: if you give a film a budget this large, you expect everyone to see it. A spectacular film the size and scale of The Wiz should have received universal interest (even if it wasn't any good - which I assure you, it is) as it has the production design, direction, screenwriting, acting, and the universal appeal of a classic American story to back it up.
But they called it a "black film." And I think that's where we fuck up.
An American Fairy Tale
"The Wiz is overblown and will never have the universal appeal that the classic MGM has obtained." - Ray Bolger
Ray Bolger played The Scarecrow in '39's The Wizard of Oz. He, like the rest of the cast, was white. And by 1978, a rather old white man. Yet his opinion was not uncommon - frankly, if you read the reviews, it appears to be the norm.
They thought it was silly. They thought it was too scary for kids. They thought Ross was too old for the part. They thought a remake of that "MGM classic" was a dumb idea.
But what Bolger, and the other predominately (if not totally) white critics of the time miss, is that The Wiz is not and never attempted to be a remake of The Wizard of Oz.
Ignoring the fact that Lumet and screenwriter Joel Schumacher were very clear about their desire to avoid ANY possible reference to the MGM film (it is, in fact, much closer to the original Baum book), one must consider the nature of the source.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is not just any novel.
Like Cinderella, Snow White, or any Brothers Grimm morality tale, it is allegory, anecdote, and as The Library of Congress points out:
"America's greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale" - The Library of Congress
It's my belief that there can be no definitive version of a fairy tale. Because fairy tales, like the oral history they are born from, belong to all people, appearing in some form in every culture across this Earth. They are folklore and myths, and that nature allows them to reach beyond their pages and frames of film.
In This Oz, Black Lives Matter
In The Wiz, Diana Ross is a Dorothy in her late twenties. A schoolteacher, living at home, confining herself to the walls of her Aunt's safe apartment. She looks nothing like Judy Garland's Dorothy, whose pigtails and plaid jumper defined the character for most of us. But neither looks like the nine-year old girl Baum wrote in his original book. However, both represent her purpose beautifully - to liberate.
When Diana Ross's Dorothy lands in Oz via NYC snowstorm, she lands in a Munchinkinland where the youth are literally confined to the walls.
In one of the most beautiful (and frightening) images of the film, those children free themselves - pulling, ripping, tearing - from their graffiti prison, Dorothy's rough landing having accidentally killed their oppressor. There's a celebration (this film is one beautiful celebration of what could be), and an unsure Dorothy struggles to understand what's right and wrong in her new surroundings. Everything she's been taught outside of here is questioned. Her shy and careful demeanor challenged by the sudden power thrust upon her. She can change the fate of those in Oz.
In Oz, a different life is possible, it only needs freeing.
When we are able to end hyper criminalization and sexualization of Black people and end poverty, control, and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free. When Black people get free, everybody gets free." - Alicia Garza, BlackLivesMatter.com
Without a single white cast member, The Wiz manages to demonstrate visually and through song, the sheer weight of racial oppression for blacks in this country. The Tin Man pinned beneath a larger-than-life "mammy" statue at an amusement park, The Scarecrow convinced by a gang of crows that he "can't win," can't read, and can't even walk. The Cowardly Lion trapped in a menacing stone sculpture outside the public library that frightens anyone who dare walk by.
These are what white perceptions and white confines have done to black people in America. Oppression doesn't require an active, bullying, in-the-flesh oppressor to continue - and never does a white man or woman appear to play that role. In fact, Eveline, the Wicked Witch of the West - the most vicious oppressor in the film - is a black woman.
A fantastic version of a "mean" black woman who rules over a sweatshop worked by the ugliest caricatures of black people imaginable. Images that will immediately remind you of the very real pieces of Americana that we once created to represent an entire race. Eveline, herself, included in that imagery.
An Invisible Oppressor
The white oppressor in The Wiz is an invisible, but still overwhelming presence. Who put that impossibly heavy "mammy" on top of Tin Man? Who buried the Lion underneath pounds of concrete? Who hung the Scarecrow from his corn field post? We don't meet him, but I have an inkling as to who.
What we are watching unfold and be overturned in The Wiz are cruel and outdated symbols, rhetoric, perspectives, and ultimately, our own silence. These things are what allow the oppression of a culture to continue in Eveline's Oz. It's what keeps those costumes on, what keeps Dorothy and us, the viewer, afraid. But what Dorothy and her band of outsiders realize is that the wicked witch can be defeated - just not without struggle.
"Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience, and oppression. In other words, some want unity without struggle." -Alicia Garza, BlackLivesMatter.com
Self Actualization and the Beauty of Struggle
And that's what The Wiz is: a strong and powerful allegory for the self actualization of black people in America through struggle. When I watched it recently, I danced, I sang, I did the usual things I do when I watch it (because it's marvelously fun and fantastic and enjoyable). I also cried when the citizens of Oz removed their skins after the demise of the Wicked Witch, and danced with Dorothy in the rain.
I cried harder when I watched Lena Horne, who recently passed away, sing her heart out telling Dorothy (and every black child, a star in the sky) to believe in herself. Then, just like the Dorothy Baum wrote more than a century ago, she could go home.
When The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, The New York Times wrote this in their review:
"This last story of "The Wizard" is ingeniously woven out of commonplace material. It is, of course, an extravaganza, but will surely be found to appeal strongly to child readers as well as to the younger children, to whom it will be read by mothers or those having charge of the entertaining of children. There seems to be an inborn love of stories in child minds, and one of the most familiar and pleading requests of children is to be told another story... The book has a bright and joyous atmosphere, and does not dwell upon killing and deeds of violence. Enough stirring adventure enter into it, however, to flavor it with zest, and it will indeed be strange if there be a normal child who will not enjoy the story." - The New York Times, September 8, 1900
This is true of The Wiz, too. There is no child who would not enjoy this story - of adventure, of fright, of joy. It is pure American fairy tale - and in that distinction, a story owned by every race and culture within our geographical limits. A story that can, and should, be used to tell our own. So that mothers (and fathers, and sisters, and brothers) will tell it to their children, and to their children, and we can truly hear it.
Be an ally
This is the conversation The Wiz can spark when you watch it right now. If we want to be the best allies to our black citizens, then we need to be willing to listen, to hear, and to change. To watch a "black film" and see its themes as universally human, but also a story that is uniquely theirs. That's what folklore, oral history, mythology, and fairy tales, are about.
Understanding that, and then affecting it - that's going to take work. It can be painful, and in recent days, we've seen a lot of that pain in real time. But parts of the struggle can also be promising, educational, and joyful.
Perhaps you can start by watching The Wiz
Or any film you or Hollywood has written off as merely "black." Notice it's universality, but also notice its difference. See the characters you know, but this time they don't look like you. See their struggle. Empathize with it, but distinguish it from your own.
You might think this will make you feel disconnected. Like you can't be a part of this story. And you're right - this version of the fairy tale may not be about you. But it involves you. And you can aid in the struggle by recognizing that and helping lift the invisible weight - if only just for a little while.
And if it ends like The Wiz, we will all feel the joy when freedom arrives.