The Wiz Was So Much More Than a Failed Wizard of Oz

By Janelle Harris | Elle
November 20, 2018
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I grew up in a cable-less household in the 1980s. My mama worked hard days in a factory, standing and lifting for eight, sometimes 10 hours a shift, and because she was a single parent, there were way too many practical expenses that demanded priority over the luxury of HBO and MTV. I was an only child who preferred my escapism in the form of books anyway, so TV became especially unexciting when I discovered at school that I was missing out on music videos and R-rated movies.

But one evening, my mother came rushing in from work, so wound up she couldn’t pull her arm from her coat sleeve without peeling the whole thing inside out. “Turn to channel 8!” she said, smiling. “The Wiz is on!” While she fumbled through her wicker basket of VHS tapes to record it, the rotary phone in the living room hollered. My grandmother was on the line, calling from two counties away to ask: “Did y’all see The Wiz is on?”

We always watched it together, even if we had to do it long distance. Mommy didn’t believe in splurging on restaurant meals, but on the occasion of a rare airing of The Wiz, she’d order a large pepperoni pizza and we’d make a floor picnic on the living room carpet. The Wiz was never just a movie or a musical. It was always an event for my family—it seemed to be aired annually right at the start of holiday-gathering season—and it’s been elevated into a Black classic, because it means something to a lot of other families too.

It was fronted by a multigenerational cast of legit all-stars, so there was a little something for everyone. Nana was as excited about Nipsey Russell as Mommy was about her teen-girl idol Diana Ross, and then there was Michael Jackson, the object of all my little Black girl affections. They couldn’t digest a whole lot of the hip-hop I was in love with, but we could all collectively appreciate The Wiz’s consummate funkiness. While my mother soothed her tired feet in her favorite beat-down slippers, I’d snake my little non-hips to the swing of “He’s the Wizard” or scissor kick during “Brand New Day.” It was hard to watch it and not want to be in it too; the magic was contagious, and jumped through the screen.

The Wiz is director Sidney Lumet’s blackened-up reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and, less directly, the 1939 black-and-white-to-Technicolor film, The Wizard of Oz, treasured by Judy Garland devotees and lovers of classic Americana. With Sparkle, Purple Rain, and School Daze, it makes up the pantheon of Black movies that centered on music or gave us iconic soundtracks. Inspired by the success of the live Tony Award–winning production, the film reached audiences that the Broadway show could not. For the $2.34 it cost to buy a movie ticket back in 1978, one could be transported to a New York City–themed fantasyland filled with grit-meets-glitz artistry.

Reportedly the most expensive musical movie that had ever been made at that point, The Wiz was hugely creative, from Tony Walton’s acid-tripped production design to Charlie Smalls’ timeless composition and lyrics and Louis Johnson’s choreography, executed with soulful intricacy by 300 dancers. It was Michael Jackson’s first starring theatrical role and the first time he worked with music director Quincy Jones, igniting one of the most legendary partnerships in of all of pop history—it produced Off the Wall the very next year and Thriller three years later.

I’ve always liked The Wizard of Oz, and I don’t think appreciating one means you can’t enjoy the other. Public and critical response to The Wiz, however, revisited the historic divisiveness that defines whiteness as refined, sophisticated, and upstanding—and blackness as insidious, seedy, and inferior. “Next to bombing the White House, I can’t imagine a better way to start a race war than to denigrate The Wizard of Oz and everything it stands for in the minds and hearts of children of all ages,” New York Daily News critic Rex Reed wrote of the musical in 1975. “Garbage is garbage, no matter what color it is, and this all-black sacrilege is at the top of the rubbish pile.”

The Wiz was released in October 1978, the meaty end of a decade that was, at least on paper, the post-Civil Rights Movement era (just like this is supposed to be the post-racial era). Federal legislation that had been purchased in the 1960s with the selfless sacrifices of Black leaders, activists, protestors, volunteers, and everyday folks—the Civil Rights Act, Executive Order 11246, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, the Voting Rights Act—culminated in progress for African-Americans.

There was a string of monumental firsts in the ’70s: The first issues of Essence and Black Enterprise were published, the first Black woman ran for president on a major party ticket, the first meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus was held, and four Black men became the first to be elected mayors of Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles and Newark, NJ. The fictional miniseries Roots confronted America with its history of abuse and enslavement for eight consecutive nights and became the highest-rated TV program in history.

But you can’t expect 10 years of change to topple grandfathered prejudices and discrimination; the dominant mindset that had privileged whiteness didn’t magically dissipate when 1969 turned into 1970. So here came The Wiz, with all of its pageantry and jubilation, and America just couldn’t digest all of that Black joy. “You can’t win, chile” belted out by Michael Jackson doesn’t have the same meaning when you’ve never not won or if, by default, winning has always been accessible to you.

Many white folks didn’t understand the cultural nuances, the Black language, or the stylistic choices, and many didn’t try. Mainstream critics—most of them white men—were eager to dismiss The Wiz as an inferior movie product, a bad Hollywood investment, and an intrusion on the original film. After its own rocky start, the Broadway musical had enjoyed a four-year run, but The Wiz didn’t do well in movie theaters, recouping only $22 million of its then-extravagant production costs—reportedly between $24 and $35 million.

Not everyone eviscerated the film. One journalist at the Washington Post predicted it would be a blockbuster, and an Ebony headline read: “The Fantastic Story of a Harlem Teacher in ‘The Land of Oz.'” There were others who were politely indifferent or curtly underwhelmed. But Americans had been conditioned to envision Dorothy as a doe-eyed, 12-year-old farm girl, and that weighed heavily on the way The Wiz and its lead star were received. “The great popularity of the film has fixed these images in the minds of millions of people as the way the Oz characters should look,” said a Library of Congress exhibit.

Of particular insult to critics was the 33-year-old Diana Ross playing the role of a 24-year-old Dorothy Gale, which probably related more to America’s fascination with white women’s innocence and purity than it did to Ross or her Dorothy being too seasoned. “A 24-year-old Harlem schoolteacher, no matter how shy, cannot achieve the same gentle innocence as a farm girl of 13,” said one unbylined review in The Newark Advocate. (A full generation before, Wizard of Oz producers wanted Shirley Temple, who was 11 at the time, to play the lead instead of Garland, who was 16 during filming and was corseted to tamp down her curves.)

Obviously, a 12-year-old white girl in 1940s Kansas and a 24-year-old Black schoolteacher in 1970s Harlem had completely different perspectives and experiences—and Ross gave Black audiences a Dorothy we could relate to. Ross’s Dorothy came from the cultural epicenter that was 1970s Harlem; she wore an original TWA. When I was a kid, I didn’t notice how old she was supposed to be; she was just Dorothy. Our Dorothy. A Dorothy that looked like me, and adventured through a vibrant world that moved and sounded like mine; I didn’t often see that represented on a screen of any size.

Despite her character’s modesty, Ross, like Black women before and after her, was sexualized without justification or provocation. “The Wiz is a mess due to the misguided efforts to turn the energetic, likeably dopey stage musical into what might pass for a ghetto fairy tale,” wrote New York Times critic Vincent Canby. “Dorothy’s unawakened sexual impulses (which is what I take the film to be about) have nothing at all to do with what happens in the movie.” While she was skipping down the yellow brick road and getting back to Auntie Em, we apparently missed that Dorothy’s real problem wasn’t that she needed to find inner confidence or a sense of place in a world of chaos. Ross had been criticized for being too stiff, too somber, too whiny, too reserved—but what she really needed, Canby seemed to suggest, was to get some.

Forty years later, as an adult, I can appreciate that she still lived at home in an itty -bitty apartment with a lot of opinionated folk in it; she had all of this family coming over and she had to help cook; her auntie was working her nerves about her job and, to top it all off, tried to play matchmaker and plop poor Dorothy next to an unvetted date at the dinner table. The Wiz’s Dorothy started off socially awkward but found her voice during a scary but affirming journey. I see myself in her initial wariness, an unconventional path that forces her to discover her own magic, and her eventual, hard-earned levity. I’m just as inspired now as I was as a child. The magic of the movie was always about possibility, and it still is.

I have cable now. BET recently televised The Wiz, and I indulged in a few jazzy minutes. It’s still special when I come across it, even though I have the DVD and can watch it whenever the desire takes hold. There’s still fresh joy in it; seeing the majestic Lena Horne descend from on high as Glinda the Good Witch will always make me feel like an awestruck 7-year-old. Play Stephanie Mills’ signature stage version or Diana Ross’ powerhouse rendition of “Home,” the epic ballad about a safe, soft place where there’s love overflowing, and the inside of my chest swells. Sometimes I even get teary—it reminds me, lyrically and personally, of my mama and my grandmother. I see the whole movie now in a way I couldn’t when I was a child. I still dance, I still sing, but I’m proud of the beauty of Blackness and the legacy of a movie that, like the people who created it, can’t help but be great.