Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Wonderful Wizard of Racism

So, I’m not a huge fan of musicals. There’s just something about the level of earnestness that a musical has to have in order to work that puts me off. Unless we’re talking about Soundheim. Seriously, there’s something going on in that dude’s brain that I hope he’s addressing with a therapist. That all said, when you get a musical that intersects with biting social commentary, I’m totally drawn in. Which is why I watched The Wiz Live! last week and am here to talk to you about it.

The Wiz Live! is the follow-up to The Sound of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live! and precedes next year’s Grease Live! All four are created by NBC which is clearly concerned about the dearth of exclamation points used in modern writing. But the biggest thing that The Wiz Live! has managed to do is thoroughly out-perform its two predecessors. By almost all measures, be they social media, ratings, or critical reception, The Wiz Live! was significantly better received than either of NBC’s previous live musical outings. Unfortunately, there are always jerks waiting in the wings to yell loudly about things.

Le Sigh.

I’ll talk about the jerks in a second, but first let’s focus on the production itself. Simply put, the show was thoroughly entertaining. First, consider the cast: David Alan Grier as the Lion, Mary J. Blige as Evilline (The Wicked Witch), Uzo Aduba as Glinda, and Queen Latifah as the Wizard. Dorothy is played by Shanice Williams, an actress who isn’t even 20 and for whom this is her first substantive production and she still managed to hold herself up next to these industry veterans. It almost goes without saying that the costumes and sets were going to be gorgeous and camera-ready, nevertheless they still knocked them out of the park. The word “ambitious” has been tossed around a lot in describing the production, but it is an accurate one that served it well.

I'm not at all ashamed to admit that I want the Wizard's chair in my apartment.

That’s not to say that there weren’t a few cracks – on one or two moments, the actors clearly stepped on each others’ lines or misspoke slightly. A mic dropped into the frame at the beginning of the broadcast. The director also relied too much on camera tricks to accomplish some of the special effects, a particularly confusing decision since those effects are all visible onstage whenever the musical is produced outside of a television studio so it’s not like they’re that hard to create. Those are generally trifles when compared to what the musical did right, however.

But of course, you can’t talk about The Wiz Live! without talking about racism. If the predominant storyline that came out of the production was generally about how good of a production it was, the second biggest story was the extent to which people online who don’t know their heads from their asses seemed to think that casting an all-black version of The Wizard of Oz is somehow an example of “reverse racism.” Twitter and other sources went nuts on this with lots of folk demanding that someone, anyone, should make an all-white version of The Wiz to protest this craziness.

"Should we tell them about MGM in the 1930s?"

I’m just old enough to remember the original version of The Wiz with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson airing on television when I was a kid. When the original film was created, it was actually the end of something; the movie marked the conclusion of an era of films that centered on African American characters and settings, beginning with the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Blaxploitation as an era of filmmaking has always been controversial, being seen alternately as both empowering to African American actors, filmmakers, and audiences and harmful to them. (See modern discussions on feminist pornography for a current example of the same argument.) The Wiz made for an odd, if likely unintentional, capstone to that movement. It is hardly the first film people are going to think of alongside Shaft, Super Fly, Blacula, Foxy Brown, or even Dolomite. Nevertheless, it remains one of the last major films to fall firmly into that world until later resurgences in the 1990s and beyond.

Given the original movie’s place in black history and black entertainment, it’s interesting that the modern version made some significant changes to its 1970s forbearer. The original musical and film was firmly grounded in the African American experience of the 1970s, harkening back to L. Frank Baum’s novel in broad strokes but bringing the action, settings, and characters into a thoroughly more urban environment. In it, Dorothy is 24 years old, a teacher, and living in Harlem. The version of Oz she travels to is a Through The Looking Glass version of New York City. Munchkinland is an inner city playground and the Munchkins have been transformed by the Wicked Witch of the East into graffiti because they tagged the park. The Scarecrow is made of garbage, the Tin-Man is found in an abandoned amusement park, the Lion has been hiding among the stone lions in front of the New York Public Library. The four have to contend with an evil subway line, a motorcycle gang, and “poppy girls”, prostitutes working Times Square who spray poppy perfume. The Wicked Witch of the West is a sweatshop owner. Oz isn’t a place that’s arrived by magically; Dorothy gets there by stumbling through a snowstorm below 125th Street, an area of the city that she’s literally never been to.

I've had this exact same look while riding the B train.

By contrast, The Wiz Live! returns the action to a setting that’s much more in-line with the source material. Now, Dorothy, like her white counterpart from the 1900 novel and the 1939 film, lives in Kansas and is trying to get to Omaha. This Oz looks much more like Judy Garland’s, all psychedelic colors and rural environments. It’s a much more traditional approach that both undercuts the interpretive power of the 1970s film and adds to the value of the original story. Both approaches show that the story can thrive in different settings; the 1970s film transplants the story full cloth into a different world where the modern take applies a different cultural worldview to a predominately white world.


All of which is kind of what makes The Wiz Live! feel so especially different. Instead of being a closing scene, this time the musical is clearly part of the opening number and comes as a vanguard of a new movement toward televised musicals. Second, it layers the experience of a minority population onto a majority’s worldview. Much has been made in the past eight years of the United States becoming a “post-racial” society. While I don’t believe that’s entirely true, we are starting to see pools of that prospect begin to seep into the greater fabric of American culture. Particular in that goal of being “post-racial” is the understanding that no culture speaks with one voice and that there are multiple stories within each cultural group, oftentimes ones that are contradictory. The Wiz Live! and its success is a welcome contributor to that notion.  

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