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Home / Film / Feature Articles / You Can’t Win and You Can’t Break Even: The Afro-American Experience Meets EST in “The Wiz” (1978)

You Can’t Win and You Can’t Break Even: The Afro-American Experience Meets EST in “The Wiz” (1978)

You Can't Win and You Can't Break Even: The Afro-American Experience Meets Est in "The Wiz" (1978)

The original stage musical of The Wiz was a massive success. Here was an all-black version of an updated The Wizard of Oz (1939) where rural Kansas became Harlem and Oz was a variant of a black-centric New York City. But when the musical was adapted into a film, it sadly failed. Box office turn-ins was at a low and audiences seemed to be disinterested. Critics such as Victor Crowley made harsh statements: “The Wiz: If it only had a brain”, and Pauline Kael found the film grotesque and unappealing. But the film adaptation, with all its many flaws, does something that only a socially conscious director such as Sidney Lumet can do – it says something profound about the African-American experience and the complexities of racial politics. Crowley is wrong: The Wiz most certainly has a brain. And a heart. And plenty of courage.

The most distinct difference between the stage musical and the film adaptation of The Wiz is the treatment of Dorothy. No longer is she a young girl, but instead a grown woman. Screenwriter Joel Schumacher introduces EST and other pop-psychology of the time to The Wiz, loading the film with multiple experiences for Dorothy (Diana Ross) to endure and learn from. In his adaptation of the musical, Dorothy is a neurotic, perpetually terrified and depressed young kindergarten teacher who has never left Harlem, as opposed to a young girl born into a low-income black ghetto looking for experience as originated by talented Broadway youngster Stephanie Mills.

The story of how Diana Ross talked her way into getting the role of Dorothy by having meetings with the executives at Universal and assertively insisting that she do the film instead of the originally proposed Mills is a thing of seventies film legend. Schumacher had to quickly turn it into an adult woman’s story. In doing so, he peppered the film with a deep psychological edge and an intense interest in the touch-me therapy fads that were becoming increasingly well documented and popular in the mainstream. Dorothy in the film version of The Wiz is changed by each and every decision she makes, she is forced to learn to ask questions and also to nurture and become a true “teacher” as well. She sets out on her journey horrified and puzzled and instead of becoming centred and whole, she is emotionally drained, continually distressed but ultimately changed. This film does not shy away from the “woman in the storm” narrative motif, nor does it step away from being a film about female neurosis. It embraces these complex concepts by giving it’s heroine an ongoing and steady nervous breakdown: throughout the film Dorothy is screaming and whimpering, cowering and fretfully shaking, but all the while she is also learning, understanding and becoming aware.

You Can't Win and You Can't Break Even: The Afro-American Experience Meets Est in "The Wiz" (1978)

In simple terms, Dorothy comprehends her existence, something she would never have been allowed to had she not experienced the urban nightmarish Oz that Lumet delivers. When her extended family sings about that “feelin’ that we had”, she replies in one of her many soliloquys “I don’t even know the first thing of what they’re feeling”. Dorothy is so out of touch with humanity that she cannot let herself “feel”. This emotional retardation continues to be explored, but at the same time the film speaks volumes about black history, the representation of black characters and the idea of black culture being jeopardised, homogenised and trivialised. The Wiz is just as important as Cabin in the Sky (1940) and other musicals that brought black experience to the foreground.

The Wiz quietly dissects the social struggles, courage and survival strategies embedded within the black experience in America. Dorothy has never been out of Harlem, she is dwarfed in importance and swamped by an oppressive fear that dominates her very existence. Auntie Em insists that she gets out there in the real world and experience life, she tells her niece that she understands that things can get scary but that it is important for her development to leave her comfortable (and yet oppressive) situation and fend for herself in the world beyond Harlem. The opening sequence with Harlem residents gathering to celebrate what seems to be Thanksgiving or Christmas lunch is subdued and unremarkable, but that’s the point – it is the humdrum which will be contrasted by the frenetic dizziness of the fantastical elements that will soon unfold. But the opening establishes character and is an articulate insight into Dorothy. When Auntie Em’s daughter arrives with her husband and baby (a woman “complete”) she is the polar opposite to the frightened and jittery Dorothy. Here, the film is letting us know that Auntie Em’s daughter is someone who has experienced love and experienced life, whereas Dorothy is stuck in a rut. Her eventual conversation with Auntie Em lets us know that Dorothy is scared of change, scared of personal growth and finds nervous comfort in the confines of her bedroom and the trappings of Harlem. She isn’t interested in taking a new job with high school students because it means relating to people closer to her own age – something she just cannot bring herself to do, let alone taking on the young suitor that Auntie Em has set her up with at dinner.

You Can't Win and You Can't Break Even: The Afro-American Experience Meets Est in "The Wiz" (1978)

Dorothy’s appearance is also worthy of note. Diana Ross looks surprisingly haggard, tired and not at all attractive throughout the film, but her vocal abilities and soaring soulful singing is nothing short of magnificent. In a sense, it is a very brave choice for Ross, as she is frumpy but her beauty shines through her incredible singing. Dorothy’s bipolar energy is a thing that has to be seen to be believed and the very talented Ross plays the role with a frazzled fragility that is demented and also somehow completely inspired. She owns the film, and she owns the bizarre incarnation of the role.

Sidney Lumet’s direction seems a little distracted at times and he has no concept as to how to stage a musical number (he continually bombards us with long wide shots which add strain to Dede Allen’s editing style). This does not at all mean he is the wrong director for the job. Yes, it is true that Lumet doesn’t know how to properly block the songs, nor does he know how to present a song that doesn’t require grandiose direction and major choreography, but what he does know exceptionally well is how to make a highly political and socially aware film. The Wiz is no exception.  The spirit of African-American struggle is unpacked in The Wiz, and this is what Lumet is interested in. He ingeniously disguises the anger, despair, history and defiance within the context of a musical fantasy so well, that there is nothing overt about any of it – to a white audience, at least. But for an African-American audience, this concealment may not be so cagey.

Perhaps critics were not looking for politics, and were interested in ensuring the terrific Motown inspired score was given a spectacular cinematic treatment, and that the overwhelming grandiosity of the piece was magnetic and charged. The overall gist of an urban Oz is palpable and interesting, and as a director uniformly interested in political and social message movies (see Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976)), The Wiz provided Lumet with fertile territory, even if it went broadly unidentified upon its release.

Tony Walton’s designs compliment this grittiness and are terrifying. There is something so creepy and bizarre about the costuming and the look of the film that it reads like a night-terror, a dreamscape of horrors and monstrosities. Legendary make-up artist Stan Winston designed the look for each character and they are distinct and oddball. Winston’s stroke of genius is in the details – notice the popcorn bag hat that the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) wears as well as his Reese’s Pieces chocolate wrapping nose, the real frayed collar on the Lion (Ted Ross) and the boils on Evillene’s (Mabel King) face caused by incessant sweat. Winston’s Tinman (Nipsey Russell) is a marvellous creation, a metallic jawline, bolted on plates, chrome toned skin. All of this adds to the horrific unnerving eeriness of the film. Much like fellow-rock musical Godspell (1973), The Wiz has an airy, haunting feel to it. The jive talking characters and the ghetto stylings of each set piece contradict the menacing look and feel, and on top of this is the lively, fantastic score.

The Wiz might all over the shop, but it works. The weirdness of the movie hits us as soon as Dorothy is whisked away by an inner city snowstorm. Her first encounter is with The Munchkins who are spray painted graffiti caricatures that come to life as soon as Dorothy crashes into the Harlem-inspired Oz. Into a graffiti riddled playground Dorothy comes into contact with these spindly street urchins who were kept as artifice by an oppressive witch who Dorothy accidentally kills. The world of the urban is what grounds The Wiz – bag ladies, street kids, derelict amusement parks, bums and drug pushers decorate the yellow brick road and are presented as abstract minstrel show freaks that parade around, make nuisances of themselves or hinder/help Dorothy on her journey.  Sometimes the film falls into a homage to the so-called “coon” shows of the turn of the century that continued through to the early forties with the African American musical experience as its primary focus, In The Wiz there is the soft shoe, the tap dancing, the shuffling and the celebration of the “new black experience” with the distinctly urban Motown score.

Megastar producer and musical genius Quincy Jones adds to the original piece and his treatment of Charlie Small’s original numbers is fantastic. The music is brimming with exuberance and energy and is fuelled with vibrancy. Although at times the numbers seem to go on far too long (the film is also over two hours, which is unnecessary), the electricity of the music is heart stopping and you cannot help tapping your feet. But the length of the film is an issue. Some songs, most notably “He’s The Wiz”, “The Emerald City Sequence” and “Brand New Day” seem to go on forever and once they make their point and/or further the story they continue to repeat the message and become tedious. But this is a minor complaint in the film as an overall experience.

There are some fabulous strokes of genius in the film such as the yellow taxi cabs that drive on down the iconic yellow brick road which continually drive away from Dorothy and her friends who venture towards the Emerald City. But then there are some strange elements that act as red herrings, such as this freaky addition: a street peddler who follows Dorothy throughout the film and whose motives don’t seem to make any sense. Why is he following her? Who is he? Why does he set those oddball balloon-men to attack Dorothy and her friends in the subway? It’s all very strange. The sequence in the subway is a horrific and insane. Garbage bins come to life and gnaw at the Scarecrow, electrical fuses burrow themselves into the Tinman and most weird of all is the fact that pillars within the subway come to life and surround Dorothy eager to crush her. It is a strange world this Oz, but it is unique, out-there and scary.

But it’s not all Kookville: there are some heartfelt moving moments in the picture. Most of them come from the soulful singing of Diana Ross. Dorothy’s final number “When I Think Of Home” is a testament to the Afro-American experience as well as a beautiful expression of female empowerment, growth and transition. When Ross sings her heart out, you feel her journey, you experience her anguish, her frustration, her depth, her loneliness and the triumph of her will. And it is magical. Michael Jackson’s performance as the Scarecrow is tender, moving and sensitive. The man can act, and his portrayal of the tormented philosophy quoting straw man is deep. There is a beautiful chemistry between Jackson and Ross, and it comes across so powerfully on screen. Not only do we feel Dorothy’s anguish, but we also get a total understanding of the Scarecrow’s dilemma, as well as the soon to be introduced Tinman and Lion.

In The Wiz, each of Dorothy’s friends are products of oppression, loss and failure. The Scarecrow is “a product of negative thinking” and the crows hold him as a prisoner forcing him to sing an anthem (a fantastic add-on song that replaced another number from the original stage musical) called “You Can’t Win (You Can’t Break Even)”) which Jackson sings with passion. Nipsey Russell as the Tinman is the consummate showbiz song and dance man – oppressed by Teeny Weeny (a fat animatronic mammie) who he is supposedly married to – “the tragic point” is that the Tinman can’t “feel” (something that connects him directly to Dorothy). Here the film examines the numbing of black culture and the danger of white washing the art of the urban black ghetto. The first moment of “light” comes with the “Slide Some Oil” song where the Tinman is liberated from Teeny Weeny (a throwback to the mean sassy mammie characters of yesteryear who were forever nasty to their Uncle Tom counterparts) and comes alive again. “I’m A Mean Ole Lion” is a great Motown number that the Lion sings right after breaking out of his proverbial closet in the form of a State Library statue lion. Here the song showcases the bravado of the black buck character archetype that peacocks around, looking proud and sexy. The Lion in reality is not this, and quickly falls to the ground terrified of living (another distinct similarity to our heroine Dorothy). When she tunefully soothes him with “Thought there may be times, when you wish you wasn’t born…” he literally leaps up into a community – a new formed community of lost, lonely and desperate fragments of urban black culture – and the four launch into “Ease On Down The Road” which marks a very distinguished urban synergy. This is where we get a sense of where the white dominant culture in the original The Wizard of Oz is reinterpreted from a black perspective. “Don’t you carry nuthin’ that might be a load…” is one of the lyrics in the number and that is a perfectly condensed summary of the burden of struggle – the “load” is oppression and to “ease on down the road” is to not have to be saddled with that turmoil – personal, local and global.

The inventive interpretation of the poppy field that renders Dorothy and friends asleep in the original film is smart inspired in The Wiz. Here, bumping and grinding prostitutes peddle opium and cause the susceptible- those that aren’t made of straw or tin – to nod off into a drug-induced slumber. This consideration of drug culture infiltrating the black culture is made with a subtle, sly wink and ultimately sends the Lion into a suicidal state. It’s as if Sidney Lumet is saying that the negatives of ghetto living (addiction and susceptibility to the dark side) impede the progress of and cause pain and despair those who are otherwise capable of surviving and thriving. This is the moment where Dorothy comes to the rescue. She comforts the Lion and sings one of the most important numbers in the film, both musically and politically. “Be A Lion” is a masterpiece, as Dorothy sings “there is a place we’ll go where there is mostly quiet”. The imagery it evokes is superb, and the complexity of the lyrics is divine. Is Dorothy discussing heaven or a utopia for the eternally subservient blacks, or are they the same thing? She insists the Lion be a lion in his own way – a beautiful play on bravery, and that you can be a hero in your own way. This is something that black activism has long embodied. The song ends with the four heroes announcing that in their own way they’re each a lion – a testament to their strength, courage and determination to find the Wiz to be granted their freedom. This is what the film does so well: it is a powerful expression of black power. Its flaws are rendered meaningless in this sense. From the sublime to the ludicrous, The Wiz’s Emerald City sequence is a glitzy fashion conscious orgy of superficiality – there is nothing honest or captivating about it. The flashiness and extreme egocentric nature of Emerald City is reflective of black tokenism as a product of opportunist whites. The number that accompanies this sequence is also distinctly disco – for a moment, The Wiz leaves R&B and the soulful purity of the Motown sound in favour of the new trend of disco (a culture invented by progressive blacks and the so-called “gay mafia”). The sleazy disco compliments the phoniness of the sequence, but it is far too long and distracts from the brilliant messages that Lumet and his talented cast delivered until this point.

The film’s villain is Evilene, who runs a sweatshop. This is a very obvious but smart symbol for the oppression of black people. She is the ultimate angry mammy character and wears it proudly. In The Wiz, stereotypes exist and they are both liberating (given depth and complexity) and damaging (still pertaining to discriminatory clichés) and here, the mammy is a menace. Glinda the Good (Lena Horne) is the epitome of the classical trope of the supposed “magical Negro” who comes in and teaches the protagonist to believe in herself. The Wiz himself is played by a tottery Richard Pryor, and he is is a mess. Much like his white predecessor from 1939, the Wiz is a charlatan, but unlike his golden age Hollywood ancestor Richard Pryor’s Wiz offers no compassion or wisdom, and isn’t capable of even suggesting that “what these characters thought they were missing were always a part of them”. Pryor’s Wiz is a politician – greedy and corrupt – he lives like a drug addict in a desolate wasteland that possesses a very stagey look to it, adding to its bleakness. And The Wiz is bleak. But hope arises through the anxious Dorothy, who ends up becoming a far more important teacher in this world than she ever was at a Harlem kindergarten.

You Can't Win and You Can't Break Even: The Afro-American Experience Meets Est in "The Wiz" (1978)

The idea of ‘home’ is treated in a fresh manner in The Wiz. Instead of Judy Garland’s heartfelt understanding that love will help her overcome defeat, in this update, Dorothy’s “home” is her place beyond a life lived in fear. Dorothy’s reluctant quest for happiness and the experience that will fuel her inspiration lie at the heart of the film. She becomes more than a teacher to her friends and the Wiz himself, she becomes their liberator and their emancipator. After Evilene sings “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” (a bright gospel number) she is melted just like Margaret Hamilton, allowing her trapped, enslaved sweat shop workers to peel off their grotesque skins and emerge as healthy, young and attractive people, free from oppression. Dorothy has freed them and they announce that it is a “Brand New Day” which is an exciting and exhilarating (albeit too long) song and a celebration of freedom and the end of their slavery. The Wiz was incredibly important for young urban black kids during the time who only knew the white Garland and company playing out their journey to Oz on their TV sets every Thanksgiving.

The Blaxploitation musical helped pave the way for Afro-American artists and audiences to have a face and voice, but it was coming to an end by the time of The Wiz. One of the most interesting films in this subgenre was Don’t Play Us Cheap (1972), directed by the energetic and provocative director Melvin Van Peebles. This was a musical that was rich and profound, painted with street-wise complexity. Carwash (1976) used music to frame its structure and subversively commented on the situations that its characters faced. And films such as Shaft (1971) took the power of song and turned it into a focal story element. Beyond white country and western, the black urban experience became the staple soundtrack of the grindhouse. Blaxploitation brought the soundtrack to a heightened place in narrative, and turned what auteur Kenneth Anger originally did in his queer cinema classic Scorpio Rising (1964) into not only an important factor contributing to story, but to the idea that film can influence song and make money from official soundtrack releasing. Soundtrack sales for The Wiz were higher that tickets at the box office.

Lena Horne had wowed audiences in important works as Stormy Weather (1943), and as Glinda the Good she sings all about believing in oneself. She embodies a healthy attitude of self-awareness but not self-involvement. Added to this is the fact that Dorothy sings out “it taught me to love, so it’s real…” Dorothy’s Oz is a place of truth and knowledge, but most importantly experience. Horne’s Glinda teaches Dorothy the importance of self-esteem, and explains that “home” comes from within. It is more than just a physical place where one eats and sleeps. These are messages left over from the original Oz from 1939, but what makes this even more poignant is that the lessons learned are universal. They are not only for white farm girls from Kansas or black kindergarten teachers from Harlem, but they are lessons for everyone. Home is a universal terrain for the spirit to blossom, and that’s what The Wiz teaches us. But it also insists that the world can be scary, unforgiving, dark and best to be explored and experienced with brains, heart and courage. 

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About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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