1978 cast of The Wiz [left] and 1939 cast of The Wizard of Oz [right]
On Thursday, December 3, 2015, NBC aired a live performance of the 1975 Broadway musical, The Wiz. The musical, based on the 1939 film adaptation The Wizard of Oz, was written to feature an all-black cast during a time where the presence of blacks in mainstream media was scant. This soulful, Tony award-winning rendition set in the context of black culture, was turned into a motion picture in 1978 which featured such stars as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor, and more.
As I am but one l’il brown-skinned girl from the north side of Chicago, I cannot speak on behalf of Black America as a whole. But for me, The Wiz was everything. Highly entertaining with performances of songs like, “You Can’t Win”, “No Bad News”, and “Home”, it not only taught me that everything that I’ll ever need is already inside of me, it reinforced that fact when Lena Horne looked meaningfully into my eyes and sang “Believe In Yourself”, which, to this day, moves me to a tear or four.
Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch singing "Believe In Yourself"
I’ve seen this movie many times and it has long been my belief that the film does not receive the acknowledgement that it deserves. So when I learned that NBC was doing a LIVE! broadcast I was ecstatic, to say the least. Now the deprived world would learn about the mystical, feet-moving, heart-melting magic of The Wiz!
Unfortunately, I am compelled to confess to having had another, almost as immediate, reaction – ‘Can they do that? It’s an all-black cast. Is White America ready for this?’ I thought, how courageous NBC must be to take this on. Aren’t they aware of the type of hate that this is going to stir up? Niggers in Oz?!!!! Me thinks not!
Although I anticipated the rise of the disgruntled with their slurs and epithets, part of me remained hopeful. After all, for "us" this was momentous; up there with the first time you saw a movie and the brother wasn't killed off during the opening sequence! My Gemini twin attempted to scold my fist-pumping, squinty-eyed, activist half, encouraging her to give her fellow man more credit, for it is 2015 and White America actually helped vote a brown man of Nigerian descent, the product of interracial copulation and the name Barack Obama, into office so of course they can appreciate a cast of brown folks displaying excellence in their craft.
The response to the 2015 rendition was incredible. Over 11-million views, surpassing last years Peter Pan and although it did not beat out 2013’s The Sound of Music, according to the Associated Press, critics seemed to have held it in higher regard courtesy of the “…heart and playfulness that was missing from…” the aforementioned. My optimistic twin puffed up her chest and in perfect dramatic form, climbed upon her high horse and peered down her cherry nose with an arrogant smirk plastered to her smug face. I was wrong!
Then there was that small vibration against my wrist that meant to alert me to what else was going on in the world. A screenshot of a tweet that read: “This is fine I guess but why isn’t there an all-WHITE version of The Wiz?!”
And there it was!
The hate that I’d suspected would rear its ugly head, reared – though not in the manner I'd expected. Can I classify it as hate? Or the result of White Privilege so engrained that the people that were doing the angry tweeting were moreso appalled at the idea of sharing the spotlight with those that don’t look like them unless, of course, they are in moderate numbers, the token, their success is somehow tethered to someone of European descent, or are going to die off soon anyway? This faction of angry tweeters so blinded by their disdain at seeing a troop of browns being featured at once, for once, that they completely missed or dissed the fact that this musical was in fact based on a film that featured the all-WHITE cast that they sarcastically alluded to, was disturbing! – albeit hilarious in a sickening sort of way. So I laughed [at, not with].
I laugh because it's ridiculous, but is it funny? White America expressing outrage at the airing of ONE all-black production when television, film, and print media has been and still is, white-dominant. And although I would be remiss to disregard the presence of non-whites in greater frequency in recent television in shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Blackish, and the Shonda Rhimes trifecta, that isn’t nearly enough to say that Hollywood is diverse and be dismissive of the greivances of minority groups. Just sit through the coming attractions preceding most mainstream films or read the racist rants every time a filmmaker dare try to shake things up by adding a "colored" gal or guy to the mix. That isn’t comical, it’s really rather frightening.
But even in the presence of hatred one must ask themselves, is it just to place the blame of shameful behavior squarely upon the shoulders of White America as a whole? I watched The Wiz Live! with it’s all-black cast, during prime time on a major network, while discussing how grand a performance it was with 3 friends and my mother-in-law – all White Americans. Eleven-million viewers tuned in knowing what to expect, making the number of haters [or spoiled brats, depending on how you view it] negligible despite their impact being far broader.
So what is my role in this? I don’t have the power to eradicate racism, that’s white peoples work. And my low expectations were quickly met adding merit to “our” grievances. But does that mean that it’s acceptable for me to cast immediate shade and blame the many for the ignorance of the few? Who wins when I add oxygen to the brushfire that is hatred? I know the dangers that lurk within and beyond the shadows, but what I suspect I must also know is that allowing it to poison me and impact how I deal with my fellow American publicly as well as behind closed doors is how that brushfire grows. I am not content to allow hate to win, but what are we to do?
Possibly the first step to the eradication of racism in America is the integration of the Yellow Brick Road, beginning with our very first politically correct L. Frank Baum adaptation – The Magical Practitioner of Oz, starring Selena Gomez as Dorothy, Justin Timberlake as The Scarecrow, Eric Stonestreet as The Cowardly Lion, Ken Jeong as The Tin Man, Laverne Cox as Glinda the Good Witch, Iqbal Theba as The Magical Practitioner, and featuring a Japanese Chin as Toto. Now that’s America!
[L-R] Selena Gomez, Justin Timberlake, Eric Stonestreet, Ken Jeong, Laverne Cox, and Iqbal Theba.
Racial equality has been a long-fought battle yet there are still incredible strides to be made before my idealistic production is a consideration. In the meantime, I must say, I’m totes-down for an all-Hispanic version of Albores del Mago de Oz [The Dawn of the Wizard of Oz] in traditional telenovela fashion, of course. Now, that would be hot!
Miki Starr is an author and digital content creator by profession. She has published 9 novels and co-authored a book of poetry. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, she now resides in Hopkins, Minnesota with her composer spouse and their cat-babies, Hendrixx and Ella.