Originally published August 19, 2016 on creators.co
I’ve loved The Wiz since I was a little kid. Although it scared the bejeezus out of me (please don’t ever ever talk to me about Evillene’s fingers curling back onto themselves), it was one of my favorites. I loved listening to Diana Ross belt “Home,” I loved seeing Michael Jackson Ease On Down the Road, and I felt like Lena Horne was singing “Believe in Yourself” directly to me with those sparkly floating babies in the background at the end of the film. I can’t even tell you how hype I would get when “He’s the Wiz” came on. And I wanted so badly to be a munchkin and play in that graffitied park with the twisted monkey bars and huge swings dropping down from impossibly high ceilings. I wanted to to be seen green, like those fabulous people sashaying around Emerald City. This creative world full of color and music was meant for me.
But past the wishfulness for fictional adventures and wanderlust for fictional places, it also made me realize the qualities it has speak to a much greater importance.
The theme of self-discovery, bonds of friendship, and epic journey home filled with unyielding determination are all given completely different meanings when a Black girl is the one to don the proverbial ruby red slippers. The racebending of this classic story doesn’t end just there; willpower and belief in oneself carry more complexity as they translate to Black liberation in the adventures of Dorothy and her friends. The movie –and franchise as a whole– shifts the perspective of a timeless tale to one that speaks so loudly to people who have historically been shut out of media geared to that sort of positivity.
Kansas becomes Harlem. Dorothy cashes in her pigtails for a curly fro. The fearsome foursome don’t just follow the yellow brick road, they eaaaaase their way on down. The fantastical elements of this wonderful world are imbued with blackness, and it shows. It takes an American classic and changes its gaze to an America very different than the one Judy Garland‘s Dorothy exists in.
Lyrics and Dialogue
The departure from The Wizard of Oz is instantly evident in the music of The Wiz. Gone are the rainbows from the farm in Kansas, replaced with the silky, jazzy overture of Dorothy’s desires to return Home. The songs have a different context because they’re sung by different voices. The 1939’s Scarecrow lamenting about his lack of a brain starkly contrasts with The Wiz‘s Scarecrow’s defeatist attitude about his captivity to the crows. Tin Man’s original wistful and upbeat “If I Only Had a Heart” becomes somber and slow, tinged with the pain of a lost love in “What Would I Do If I Could Feel.” Strings and orchestras are pushed aside while more funky and soulful horns and drums are front and center to give the film a different flair than the ’30s classic. And the lyrics of the songs are given more meaning that equate the characters’ confinement and loss to the Black American experience.
The lexical distinctions in song titles like “Mean Ole Lion” and “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” draw directly from African American vernacular English, or AAVE, a dialect spoken by many Black Americans. Black English is woven throughout the production, and throughout each iteration of The Wiz through the decades. The crows in the 1978 film say “you just a stray paper dummy” to Scarecrow while Shanice Williams‘ Dorothy tells her new friends they can’t flake on her now because “y’all were supposed to be my squad.” From zero copula to current slang, Black English is used in every version of The Wiz.
Probably the most prominent pro-Black message is the song “A Brand New Day,” the crux of the film. After Dorothy has defeated Evillene, her slaves known as the Winkies are able to shed their shackles and live as they want. The song evokes motifs of Black liberation and the celebration of freedom from enslavement, both themes in the history of Black America. In the film, Nipsey Russell‘s Tin Man exclaims “free at last!” — an ad-lib by the actor in reference to Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. Its joyous, upbeat rhythm is sung by the entire cast as a way to celebrate their newfound freedom. Written by Luther Vandross, the song draws on a soulful choir, vibrant horns, and crashing crescendos that denote a uniquely Black rejoicing. And with lyrics such as “In harmony/and show the world that we’ve got liberty” and “Freedom you see/has got our hearts singing so joyfully,” it’s clear the song is meant to take us to church and incite the undying spirit of that aspirational emancipation so unique to us.
Dance and Visuals
The Wiz‘s blackness goes far beyond just its music and lyrics however, the obvious visual element being having an all-Black cast. Black culture makes itself known in the visuals of The Wiz in every way. From costuming to choreography, the show knows its roots.
In every rendition of The Wiz, Dorothy wears her hair natural: afro puffs in the Broadway show, an afro in the film, and kinky spiral curls in the live musical. In fact, The Wiz Live! managed to pull off a multitude of natural hairstyles: the Lion’s locs, the variety of twist outs and curly fros from the munchkins, and Glinda the Good Witch’s braided crown, which was a departure from the blonde wig Uzo Aduba wore in promotional photos. Shanice Williams applauded the change, saying “[The] Good witch doesn’t have to have blonde hair, she can have her natural braided up hair, like an African-American queen.” It may seem like a small detail, but Black people wearing their hair in its natural state is a rarity for television, due to the negative assumption of it to be unprofessional or unruly. So this simple statement is also a powerful one that lets the audience know that we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Easily one of the best proponents of blackness in The Wiz is the dancing. The crows do the Nae Nae while the munchkins hit the Quan in the live musical, and it’s one of the blackest things to ever be broadcast on television. New school dances brought in a modern edge, and the immaculate voguing in the exclusive Emerald City was a charismatic callback to the ’70s film’s dancers suavely strutting to the Wiz’s ever-changing fashion choices. Ne-Yo broke barriers by becoming the first Tin Man not only to wear a tin fitted cap, but also the first to dab.
And this piece would not be complete without mentioning Michael Jackson grooving as only he can during A Brand New Day (and throughout the entire film.)
Dancing is a huge part of Black culture and the film and live musical keep it up-to-date, blending musical theater, the fantastical elements of Oz’s magical world, and current dances. The dancers in ensemble scenes never fail to show out in The Wiz Live!, dressed to the nines and killing it.
The most fabulous dance number from the live musical, of course, was the Emerald City scene. Dressed in green –excuse me, emerald— from head to toe, with outlandish hairdos and futuristic outfits, the concept of Emerald City was steeped in a very specific blackness known as Afrofuturism. Harkening back to the fierce days of 1978, these dancers did the damn thing. Emerald City was lit. “Serve. Slay. Beat. Fierce,” they said as they vogued and death-dropped like it was hot. The Merry Old Land of Oz could never.
While this new Emerald City club was more houseparty-esque than its predecessor, it evoked similar themes from the film decades before it. Both versions have a multitude of Black people in flashy, sparkly, overdramatic clothing dancing with extreme flair. The film showcased fur coats flapping in the wind, gaudy glistening jewelry, elongated ball gowns paired with elbow-length gloves, glittery suits, and a range of snazzy fashion fit for the Wiz himself. And those chic citizens stepped in sync with swag as smooth as butter. The live musical remained inside that same vein of eccentric fashion, upgrading to costumes, hair, and makeup that exude a more futuristic feeling of extravagance.
The Emerald City scenes don’t radiate just blackness, they boast a niche element of the culture: Black queerness. Voguing was born out of the Black and Latino gay ballroom scene in Harlem, drag queens emulating rich and glamorous white women. Death drops began as one of voguing’s many dramatic moves and became popularized by mainstream dance. So it makes sense that Dorothy, a Harlem native in the film, is running into wondrous worlds that take inspiration from a culture belonging to her hometown.
The allegories to Black queerness don’t end there. The role of the Wiz themselves has been played by queer actors since the Broadway show. Andre DeShields, an openly gay singer, dancer, and actor, originated the role in the 1970s. He played the role in a fabulous cape and Spandex suit, as only a character so outlandish could.
Fast-forward forty years and we have Queen Latifah reprising the role, playing with gender fluidity and androgyny. Her perfectly coifed, emerald-contoured male Wiz alter-ego is accepted by the #squad, and the rest of Oz. The Queen has long been an icon in the gay community, especially heralded for expertly playing queer-positive roles, like her award winning Bessie and Cleo in Set It Off. This assertion of Black queerness was refreshing and organic, which made it so much better; normalizing a real identity that so many posses, yet often remains absent from the screen. And although “A Brand New Day” more closely aligns with Black freedom, lyrics about awaiting hope in the face of silent fear and dread definitely speak to the similar systemic oppressions inside of queer communities.
As previously mentioned, the most immediately obvious difference between The Wiz and The Wizard of Oz is the former’s all-Black cast. This kind of casting was radical in the ’70s when the Broadway musical was created, falling in line with the Blaxplotation movement. Even though the film’s numbers were hurt by racist theaters refusing to show the movie, and the play’s debut week in Baltimore was marred by low ticket sales, both became classics because there were so few films and shows that displayed blackness in that way.
One of the reasons the film was able to rise to its acclaim was the incredible star power of the cast. Let’s be real, Michael Jackson was legendary and having him star in the movie was a very smart move. Similarly, Diana Ross was at the peak of her fame in the late ’70s and her powerhouse vocals blew her songs out of the water. The cast spanned from singers to comedians with Lena Horne as Glinda and Richard Pryor as the Wiz, even dipping into the original show’s ensemble with Ted Ross and Mabel King reprising their roles as the Lion and Evillene respectively.
The live musical mirrored this inclusion of iconic Black entertainers, garnering a long list of celebrities that helped punch their numbers up higher than any previous NBC live musical. Queen Latifah, Uzo Aduba, Mary J. Blige, Amber Riley, Ne-Yo, David Alan Grier, Common, and a plethora of other prolific Black actors and musicians definitely made it one to watch. And just like the film before it, The Wiz Live! recruited former actors from its predecessors, tapping Stephanie Mills, The Wiz‘s original Dorothy, to play Auntie Em.
The star-studded cast helped The Wiz Live! crush NBC’s previous live musical by nearly 22%, garnering viewership of 11.5 million the night it aired and made it the most tweeted live special program in Nielsen history. Newcomer Shanice Williams brought the house down as Dorothy with her powerful vocals, her charm, her side eye, and her remarkable physical embodiment of #BlackGirlMagic. She showed every little Black girl, like Diana Ross and Stephanie Mills did before her, that those magic slippers can fit anyone.
This evolution of Black excellence from stage to screen continues to be a colorful and powerful journey that shows young Black kids that fairytales can include them, too. It encourages a raw belief in oneself that is so desperately needed for children of color. This new take on an old tale is an important one because, in a time where so few places in entertainment media include Black faces, The Wiz continues to teach us that we can be anywhere and do anything. We can travel to marvelous new lands and have thrilling adventures. We can be heroes and we can be villains. We can be vulnerable and scared, and we can also be brave. We can cultivate strong friendships that help us learn about ourselves. We can do all of this and more in a way that is unique and special to us, a way that we don’t have to hide and can be unabashedly, unapologetically Black. And as time goes on, and The Wiz is translated to connect with newer generations, there’s no doubt that that crucial parade of the positivity of blackness will continue to shine as brightly as Glinda the Good Witch.