Black History Month: The Wiz

Up until now, I’ve reviewed only movies with black directors, but I’m making an exception today because although Sidney Lumet directed The Wiz, it’s one of the few all-black musicals and was a big deal on its release in 1978. Transferred from the stage to the screen in what was then the most expensive musical production ever, the film was shot on location in New York and in studio space in Queens, and it starred Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. Forty years after its release, the movie doesn’t stand out as one of the great musicals committed to film, but it does have many wonderful numbers and a great cast.

The musical is full of excellent songs, including the upbeat “Ease on Down the Road,” “You Can’t Win,” “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” and “A Brand New Day”; the stylish and smooth “Emerald City Sequence”; and the slightly sappy but ultimately soaring “Be a Lion” and “Believe in Yourself.” It’s a delight to see Michael Jackson use his physicality to stumble and bumble about as the Scarecrow learns to walk, before he finds his legs and bounds across the Yellow Brick Road in a joyful dance. Diana Ross plays a neurotic schoolteacher version of Dorothy that just doesn’t work, but when she sings, it doesn’t matter. Mabel King’s number is glorious, and Lena Horne delivers a rousing penultimate number, despite being surrounded by small babies dressed up as glittery blue stars/cherubs.

The humor in the film is understated but it’s there — a lot of wordplay from the Crows, yellow cabs that always flip to “Not in Service” whenever Dorothy approaches one, the group being told “the service entrance is at the side” when they first get to Emerald City, The Wiz calling the Lion an overstuffed animal cracker, the Scarecrow requesting “some of your great wiz-dom” and then fainting from his own pun.

I can’t tell how much of the costumes and makeup looking slapped together is because this was 40 years and a lot of technology ago, and how much is it just wasn’t that great even at the time. Michael Jackson’s horrid makeup and weird double chin are a crime, and seriously what is up with those star babies. But Evelline’s bejeweled dress, which looks like what the Dame wears in a panto, is spot on. I liked the tormented face masks and odd pantaloon costumes of her sweatshop workers, and I liked even more when they took them off and they danced in their underwear, as free as can be.

I’ve read some reviews from the time that praised the cinematography and editing, but I don’t see that at all. I know it’s hard to shoot dance numbers because they’re set up to be on a stage, so simultaneously showing the scope and the precision and detail is tricky. But Lumet basically pulls the camera away during all of “A Brand New Day,” and never zooms in on the gorgeous (and surely expensive!) costumes in the “Emerald City Sequence” — instead, spends much of the piece at an odd low angle to the extreme left, leaving a strange amount of negative space to the right. Oh but the saddest was when Dorothy and Scarecrow are first easing on down the road, and Lumet pulls back in a crane shot but only partway, so that by the end of the song, when we should have this sweeping view of the road trailing away into the horizon, and our plucky young heroes in the center of frame, we see the two of them near the top of the screen, on an almost entirely yellow screen, so that the scene is squished and we get no sense of scope at all.

There are a couple redeeming shots — when they come up to the bottom of the Brooklyn Bridge and see the Yellow Brick Road blazing a trail over the bridge and through the Manhattan skyline beyond, in the dark and then as the sun rises (and turns into a Big Apple, haha); and from the inside of the Emerald City, looking out through the round door to the four heroes with the iconic Brooklyn Bridge centered behind them.

Richard Pryor’s performance is perfect, every little nervous tic and every line delivery part of a man who’s very far from home and is desperate for love. Ted Ross had done the role of the Lion on Broadway, so it’s perhaps not surprising that his performance is a little broader than necessary. Nipsey Russell brings more complexity to his Tinman than we ever saw in the original Wizard of Oz, plus he can tap dance.

Thinking back on other musicals that make a point to have black characters and don’t just default to all-white casts (RagtimeHairsprayShow Boat, even Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar), in each of these musicals the story shows the black characters’ lives in relation to the white characters’. They only exist in relation to what life is like as a black person in white America, or how specific black characters interact with specific white characters. The Wiz, though it is directed by a white man and based on an all-white film, shows a New York City populated entirely by black people. This is just the norm, the world of the film, and there’s a relief in that, a freedom to let the film explore who these characters and what these places can be without that constant presence of white people.

I say that with the understanding that the musical purposely highlights many aspects of the experience of black people in America, and that some of those aspects stem directly from racist policies and actions — the poverty, the drugs, the Parks Commissioner punishing all the kids who were tagging the playground. But The Wiz looks at New York and says, “Okay, this is ours now,” and takes it from there, and I love that about it.



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