Before black Little Mermaid, there was The Wiz.
The Wiz was an infamous 1978 remake of The Wizard of Oz featuring an all-black cast which included Diana Ross, a teenaged Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor as The Wiz himself. The movie was based on an outrageously successful 1974 Broadway musical that was the Hamilton of the 1970s. It was the retelling of a white story by an all-black cast. It ran for 1,600 performances and won seven Tonys, including Best Musical.
Younger readers may not be aware of the cultural standing that The Wizard of Oz had in the second half of the twentieth century. It was the Gone with the Wind of children’s movies, ranked even higher than any Disney movie. It aired once a year on network television, and when it did, it was a big TV event on par with the Super Bowl. Parents would watch it with their kids, just as their parents had watched it with them when they were kids. I don’t know if it is still as big of a deal these days or if Toy Story, Shrek, or something else has replaced it, but when I was a kind, its status was immense.
The Little Mermaid seems to have had similar endurance. The 1989 movie was an old-school, hand-drawn cartoon but remains surprisingly popular well into the age of high-tech computer animation. So of course, it had to be destroyed. The Wizard of Oz was about the same age as The Little Mermaid when Shlomo first tried to destroy it, but he failed, because the end product was such an abomination that even the liberals who were rooting for it found it impossible to defend. If it were to come out nowadays, they might force themselves to pretend to like it, or at least call other people racist for not liking it. But in the 1970s, white liberals still had some shreds of shame.
I remember hearing about The Wiz as a kid, namely that it sucked. I assumed it sucked because the gimmick didn’t work, or because it was cheesy or fell comically short of the original masterpiece, or just because it was black. But I finally got around to watching it this week and it sucks in all sorts of ways that I did not anticipate.
When I first heard that they had made a black version of The Wizard of Oz, my first thought was that the movie must be like a black Santa at the mall, or a black Barbie Doll. “Let’s give black children their own Wizard of Oz with black actors who they can identify with.” But it’s not that at all. Nor is it a children’s movie. It’s an artsy-fartsy film for adult liberals that’s extremely boring, depressing, and weirdly pretentious. There’s all sorts of New York art-fag aesthetics and counter-culture surrealism. For the first half I was thinking, “This is the worst children’s movie I’ve ever seen. What child could possibly enjoy this?” But then I got to the scene with the dancing prostitutes and realized, “So this isn’t a children’s movie? They made a Wizard of Oz for adults?”
The primary reason this is a movie for adults is Diana Ross. Apparently the original stage musical is closer to a “Wizard of Oz for black children.” The lead actress, Stephanie Mills, was a teenager, and the story kept closer to the original 1939 movie. Mills was first choice for Dorothy, but Diana Ross managed to steal the part by securing the financing for the film on the condition that she star. Ross looked every bit of her 33 years, and so the character’s age was raised to 24 — and Ross was really still too old even for that.
Other changes from the stage musical were that the setting was shifted from Kansas to New York. You see, they didn’t just make The Wizard of Oz black; they also made it urban. When Dorothy gets sucked into the snow tornado and ends up in Oz, it’s not a fantasyland of sparkling, vivid colors, but a semi-cyberpunk dystopian version of New York full of dull greys and concrete as far as the eye can see. Rather than being a far-off dream world, Oz is like a Silent Hill-style inverted nightmare version of Dorothy’s ordinary surroundings.
It might be worth noting that two years before The Wiz, that there was an Australian glam-rock-themed modernization of The Wizard of Oz called simply Oz, a play on the fact that Oz is a nickname for Australia. In that film, two groupies go to see a concert and then leave with the band in their truck. The truck has an accident, and one of the groupies wakes up in an alternate version of Australia that is exactly the same except that the biggest rock star in the country is a David Bowie-type glam rocker named The Wizard. The film bombed in Australia, but became a surprise hit in the United States, where it grossed over a million dollars. The Wiz may have taken the idea of Oz as an alternate version of the real world from this movie.
After going through all the trouble of assembling an all-black cast, you would think they would go the extra mile by getting a black director as well. But no. Maybe they were afraid a black director would make the movie too blaxsploitation. But they did find a Jewish director who was married to a black woman: Sidney Lumet, who was married to the daughter of Lena Horne, who also appears in the film as Glinda the Good Witch of the South. Lumet had directed many classic films, including 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Network, and Dog Day Afternoon, all of which are very heavy dramas. I imagine he was brought on to give the movie a touch of class and to give it artistic credibility with white audiences. However, Lumet made the movie pretentious in ways that a black person would never think to do. The end result is a movie that is too ethnic for whites and too artsy-fartsy for blacks. I have no idea who they thought would be entertained by it.
Much of the film’s pretentiousness is due to screenwriter Joel Schumacher. In the late 1970s, Joel Schumacher and Diana Ross were both obsessed with the teachings of Werner Erhard, and added themes from his EST training into the script. Who’s Werner Erhard? I watched a documentary about him while researching this article. He was a self-help guru and cult leader in the 1970s. He was satirized in the Burt Reynolds movie Semi-Tough. He had a famously ultra-confrontational style, and supposedly a lot of his techniques were ripped off from Scientology. It was all about overcoming past trauma to become who you truly are. It eventually came out that Erhard was a former used car salesman whose real name was Jack Rosenberg, and that he had previously abandoned his wife and children and didn’t speak to them for 13 years. Still, there are many people who claim he changed their lives, including several celebrities. He finally retired in 1991 after both of his daughters accused him of rape. Both would mysteriously recant years later.
You can hear a lot of Rosenberg’s influence in The Wiz. Near the end, Michael Jackson says, “Success, fame, and fortune, they’re all illusions. All there is that is real is the friendship that two can share.” That’s the kind of stuff Jack Rosenberg says to people in his struggle sessions. There’s an overall theme of believing in yourself.
The first choice for director was John Badham, who had a massive hit the year before with Saturday Night Fever. Badham at least had some experience in doing a music-themed movie, and I don’t see how he could possibly have done a worse job. Alas, he left the project after Diana Ross was cast as the lead. This would prove to be a wise decision. Ross is atrocious in the movie. She never smiles or laughs, and spends the whole movie looking nervous or scared, which, along with the dim lighting and ugly aesthetics, contributes to the overall “downer” feel of the picture.
Still, there was a lot of talent, however misused, put into The Wiz, and there’s some craft to be appreciated. There’s also some good camera work. Some of the costumes and set designs are impressive, if not altogether pleasant to look at. There lies its worst problem: It is oppressively ugly. The character designs are grotesque, and I’m expected to root for these people who are painful to look at. The Scarecrow’s nose looks like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrapper.
Almost as bad as its aesthetics is the pacing. The Wiz is as slow as molasses in December, and the villain doesn’t show up un until three-quarters of the way into the movie. When she dies, you feel nothing, because you never got to know her.
One holds out hope that perhaps Richard Pryor might save the day in the final act, or at least give us something for our troubles. Alas, when Pryor at last gets his chance to shine, it’s underwhelming, and I don’t know if it’s unfunny or simply that there was no attempt at humor at all.
The reason why The Wiz was not completely forgotten is due to Michael Jackson. Jackson plays the Scarecrow, and is essentially the second lead after Diana Ross. The first choice for the role was Jimmie Walker of Good Times fame, who would have been infinitely better. While Walker is not as good of a singer as Michael Jackson, he is at least funny and could have injected some desperately-needed levity into this soul-crushing monstrosity.
The music, while not enough to save the movie, is the best part of The Wiz, especially if you’re into the music of that era. The soundtrack did decent business by selling half-a-million copies and generated a few hit singles around the world. But like anything which tries too hard to be “modern,” the inclusion of disco guaranteed that the film would become dated in a very short time. Still, the film was the first collaboration between Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, who would go on to produce two of the best-selling albums of the 1980s: Thriller and Bad.
It’s hard to watch The Wiz and not think that the movie’s entire purpose was merely to desecrate something white people love. It does not appear to have been made with the intention of entertaining children — or anyone, for that matter. I can only assume that its purpose was political. It would not have been so bad if The Wiz had merely taken a beloved white movie and made it woke. But they did something far crueler: They made it ugly.
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