Then & Now: The Wiz

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Geoff Harris

The Wiz (1978) is an updated re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz. Starring Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, and a painfully young Michael Jackson, the rework moves the story from Kansas to New York City and the characters are all played by black actors. The music was made contemporary (for the time) with a more jazz/funk feel. Richard Pryor plays The Wiz, the great and powerful ruler of Oz. The ruby slippers were in tow, of course. It is a very complete reworking and I, humble Caucasian from the suburbs, fell in love with it.

Then

I saw this movie as part of a field trip while in the third grade. This is the first movie I’ve talked about going back that far. I remember how colorful it was in the costumes and sets. (Put your minds back in neutral, Social Justice Warriors!)  It was different! It had a heart and soul other films didn’t have. I paid little attention to the cast being “not like me.” I was too drawn in to really notice. The Wicked Witch’s throne was a giant toilet. This kind of stuff sticks in your brain. (Throne, I learned later, was a nickname for toilets. My sense for metaphor began that day.) My class was instructed to draw a picture of our favorite scene. I choose the subway scene where the characters get assaulted by killer trash cans. It just terrified and thrilled me. The weird jack-in-the box people didn’t help either. I still get creeped out in some places because of situations like that; being trapped and surrounded. It gets inside you. I may have seen Wizard prior, but The Wiz is the musical I look back on as one of, if not, the first. I like musical theater. I enjoy good storytelling. I was a geek practically since birth. I was also so very innocent and unknowing about hatred and prejudice.

Now

I really haven’t seen the movie all the way through in quite some time. I missed the live version that was done not too long ago on broadcast television.  The Wiz is a slice of time. A point captured forever on film. America was on the verge of a new decade. Attitudes would broaden towards the good and the bad. The Harlem Renaissance gives way to Hip Hop Culture. The Middle Class grows as new families move into  the suburbs. Schools get more diverse. Tensions become even more strained between the myriad types of humans walking the Earth.

I’m going to get preachy here. If talk about “Race” bothers you, quit reading now.

 

IN MY OPINION, there’s The Human Race, as a totality. Not plural. One big classification to describe the naked apes who think of themselves as the high-end predators on the Food Chain. Yes, there are noticeable differences.  I can tell the difference between an apple and an orange, but at the end of the day, they’re still fruits. Humans have a genetic diversity unlike any other creature on the planet. That’s what makes us so connected to each other and yet still unique enough to form newer and more exotic blendings. Racism is a way of forcing a paradigm that serves no real purpose except to forgive acts of cruelty based on a false premise. I have heard with my own ears someone denounce The Wiz as ” appropriation crap” because the cast is black and the music “isn’t right.” This person also makes jokes about abusing animals and thinks woman should serve his needs because they are “the weaker sex.” And he’s not alone in this world.

I’ve told an off-color joke or two in my time. We all have. Richard Pryor turned racism against itself and made a career showing how hate can be funny when relayed as the absurdity it is. What really grates my cheese is some people’s inability to think beyond a two-dimensional scope. The Wiz can easily be considered an alternate universe. It is the same story told basically step for step as the original. Yes, the music is different and some of the imagery has been changed. No shit. ALTERNATE UNIVERSE. You can use the phrase “Alt Right” but can’t conceive of a world similar but oh-so-different from your own? I feel like I’m the crazy one.

I’m not here to spout politics or change minds. I watch movies and give a reflection on how I feel about them. The Wiz will always be in my heart because it was an early introduction to being different. I don’t need to be black or from the ghetto or even a musical theater student to enjoy this movie. It was a part of my childhood and not even the dimmest bulb of ignorance can ever take that away from me.

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