August 30, 2010

The Wiz. An Appreciation, 32 Years Later

There were no blogs when I saw this musical as a ten year old. There was only schoolwork, AM and FM radio, three networks and four local channels flying through all that atmosphere that our cell phone calls now occupy for the most part. Newspapers were the daily history of record, and if it didn’t get covered, it often didn’t “have” happened.
It was a different world in 1978. It was not a world in which a Black man was entertained as a candidate for any office higher than mayor, -other than as a cruel, insulting joke.

I bought the DVD release of the Wiz last year, one of the very few musicals I left off of my list of very few musicals that I love. Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark would be another notable omission. I’ve only gotten around to watching The Wiz again this past weekend, and decided that even with its four Oscar nominations; it has rarely gotten its due.
Among the motion pictures of Sidney Lumet, this is surely a standout for its aspirations, as well as its subject matter. For the most part, Lumet’s hopes (in as much as I can identify the longings of any artist) in cinema were previously relegated to the possible and the familiar in New York (E.g. 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon.) The Wiz is as much a work of Science Fiction as it is a musical, and that’s a very fundamental distinction in need of exploration and discussion because while The Wiz’s “inspiration” or object of commentary uses magic as its principal means of applying force or resolving conflict, Lumet’s film is speculative and “possible...”

Flying Monkeys were traded for motorcyclists this time around.

This re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz, is a fable grounded in “the real.” One of the greatest inherent fantasies in American cinema was the decades-long absence of Black people altogether, as well as their non personhood in history as expressed in the movies. From that perspective, hundreds of American pictures (If not all of them up until the mid 1950s) can be described as fantasies because there were no Black people in them, and they therefore referred to a “non-existent” America, for there has never been a point in the history of the United States where African Americans were not active participants. To look at all the films of anybody crucial to the history of Hollywood like let’s say, George Cukor; an unknowledgeable observer would think that African Americans were late-comer, rare, exotic immigrants and not citizens numbering in the tens of millions largely responsible for building the country for all of the centuries of its existence.

What Lumet’s film gives us is a Dorothy who is not a child, she is a (ahem) 24-year-old kindergarten teacher, in some ways she is the opposite of a child in character which is extremely important for this “adaptation of an adaptation” (this is no remake) that is being crow barred into post civil rights relevancy by Joel Schumacher’s script. The Wiz presents us with a scarecrow made of garbage; a Tin Man who is mechanical toy from Coney Island; and lastly a lion, exiled from the jungle and making his living as a statue in front of the New York Public Library.
These symbols and metaphors are as dependent on the subject of their allegory, the legacy of racial injustice in America, as they are on the original film by Victor Fleming (I doubt the silent 1925 version is remembered by many.)
For if the original Wizard of Oz attempted to reach the possible with the impossible; the Wiz attempted to reach the impossible with the unthinkable:

It is Diana Ross’s Dorothy who tells her teammates that they always had what they were always told they were lacking. It is Richard Pryor’s Wiz who makes the previously unspoken confessions of impotence, and explains the price of political bargains that bring the capable, and the mighty down the path of mediocrity and capitulation. These are much more profound insights and existential speculations than were ever implied in past adaptations of Frank Baum’s American fable about a Kansas schoolgirl living in a reassuringly all White pastoral society where even the economic strata’s bottom was populated by White characters only. Visibility is the mission of this picture, visibility and awareness; of the self, of each other, and of the world.

There are bitter sweet moments in this movie that are made all the more stinging and poignant by the decades’ passage of time since its release. Michael Jackson is sadly buried under all the elaborate costuming and creature effects; presaging in tragically prescient fashion, the very way he would later attempt to erase himself with surgery and chemical burnings. Jackson’s dancing, his kinetic almost superhuman grace is weighed down earthward by boxy fabrics and padded shoes that distract from his height and never succeed in telling you more about the Scarecrow’s plight than Jackson himself could have with movement. Curiously, the “Brand New Day” dance number in which the enslaved shed their heavy layers of monstrous subhuman make up to reveal a mass of variated, lithe, beautiful dancers of every description, draws your attention to Jackson all the more. The grotesque weight of Jackson’s makeup and disguise is made achingly tragic by all of those dancers in flight, -confident in their minds, -confident in their bodies and their very souls.

I pulled one simple message away from this movie as a child: “Dignity Is the Road.”

Today I wonder if two of its stars, tragically tortured by the unavoidable pressures that their meteoric talents and success brought, were able to hear what I thought they were telling me. I suppose I just find it hard to accept that I live in a world with no Richard Pryor in it anymore.

The original release of this picture was a “flop” I’ve always heard, an abject failure. That kind of industry news rarely matters to kids. Kids love what they love, and as a grown man I still love this picture. I can remember being blown back in my seat by the sets, stunned speechless by that skyline with five or more Chrysler buildings in it.

I have to ask people who see this picture now after so many years, with Lena Horne as Glinda the Good, how could anyone not love and revere this movie?
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