In ‘The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism’ (1964), Henry Littlefield, a high-school teacher, interpreted L. Frank Baum’s novel as an extended metaphor for American politics in the 1890s. He argued that Baum, who in 1888 moved to the territory that became South Dakota, sympathised with the plight of the region’s farmers and was influenced by the views of a man he sang with in a barbershop quartet, who later became a senator for the Populist Party. Littlefield saw The Wizard of Oz as an allegory of the populist movement of the late 19th century, which wanted to use silver as well as gold to back the dollar, thus increasing the money supply. The resulting inflation would put ‘free silver’ in the hands of the ‘common man’, like the Dakota farmer. In this reading, Dorothy represents the Kansas agronomists, while her silver shoes (they aren’t red in the book) and the yellow brick road signify America’s bimetal destiny.
Littlefield admitted in 1992 that he only made up the theory to teach his students literary criticism, but by then his reasons were beside the point: his essay had opened the door to scores of creative interpretations. On 7 November, the day many news outlets announced that Joe Biden had won the electoral college, clips of ‘Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day)’ from The Wiz (1978), an all-Black version of The Wizard of Oz, appeared everywhere online. While the director (Sidney Lumet) and screenwriter (Joel Schumacher) were both white, the music was mostly written by the Black lyricist and composer Charlie Smalls, and produced by Quincy Jones. It tells a story of Black freedom and resistance through boogie-woogie, disco, funk and soul.
The movie was an adaptation of a successful stage play, which swapped Kansas for Harlem, the Munchkins for graffiti artists and the Good Witch of the North for an illegal numbers runner, Miss One. The Wiz premiered in Baltimore in 1974, and after a triumphant run, moved to Broadway the following year. Motown, at that point a nascent film production company as well as a record label, bought the movie rights. The subsequent film, which starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, as well as Richard Pryor and Lena Horne, was a commercial and critical flop. But it became classic holiday viewing for many Black Americans, including my family.
The Wiz is set in late 1970s New York, dingy and rundown, full of dilapidated tenements of the sort the Trump Corporation was keen to buy up. Ross, who was 33 when she was cast in the lead role, plays a Dorothy on the edge: a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher who’s not only afraid to teach the older kids, but scared to leave her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry to live on her own. Pauline Kael wrote that Ross was too old to play Dorothy, but Ross’s evident sense of failure and existential torpor make her Dorothy a more interesting character than the pre-teen played by Garland. Ross’s Dorothy is hemmed in, frightened of ‘feeling’, given to anxious but sharp observations: ‘I can’t see how going south of 125th Street ever made anybody’s life better.’ She doesn’t like the things that life is offering her, but feels powerless to change her circumstances. Dorothy contemplates her sense of confinement while washing Thanksgiving dishes. Until, that is, a door is held ajar too long and Toto, her dog, runs out into a blizzard.
Dorothy gets swept up in a storm, landing in the kind of sandbox Aunt Em wants her to leave so that she can teach high school. Like the canonical Dorothy, she kills the Wicked Witch of the East. In this version, the witch is Evamean, the Parks Department commissioner, who punishes graffiti artists by turning them into graffiti. Black Americans’ distrust of state institutions (all the government officials in the movie are bad) and contemporary critiques of the white gaze inform the film’s sociological observations. After Michael Jackson, playing the Scarecrow, performs the sardonic, despairing ‘You Can’t Win’, he and Dorothy run to the kerb to get a ride, only to find the cabs speed away as they approach. The blissed-out, mini-skirt-wearing ‘poppy girls’ are a nod to the heroin-addicted sex workers who clustered around Times Square when it was a porn and peepshow haven. Kael wrote that the film’s climactic sequence, ‘A Brand New Day’, written by Luther Vandross, ‘may be the first musical number by Friedrich Engels’.
Despite The Wiz’s political messaging, what’s striking now is its focus on feeling. In ‘Can I Go On?’ Dorothy is afraid of feeling too much, saying it’s ‘more than I can deal with’. In ‘What Would I Do if I Could Feel?’ the Tin Man, played by Nipsey Russell, pantomimes the tragedy of the Black minstrel performer, his emotions hidden behind red or blackface make-up. Once he’s been oiled, he can tap-dance his ‘metal metatarsals’ again. But is that what he really wants to do? Avoiding both the ironic excesses of camp and the uber-machismo of Blaxploitation, The Wiz managed to leave space for feeling in a cultural moment that otherwise poked fun at it or tried to avoid it.
In an interview from 1977, Ben Harney, who played the Tin Man in the Broadway production, said that ‘for the first time in a long time people were getting Black theatre that wasn’t hitting them over the head with anger and militancy. This was a show that had universality, and it was fun.’ But after the film was released, white writers compared it to the so-called ‘militant’ productions of the era. Charles Champlin complained in his review that Lumet had directed the film ‘as if it were Roots instead of a musical fantasy film with (new) satiric overtones’. In truth the film fuses both sensibilities, and it’s this that made it unwieldy and hard to classify. That the more strident Roots was a TV sensation and became a cultural phenomenon, while The Wiz failed horribly, says something about the public lack of appetite for subtlety or complexity in Black productions. ‘That music – maybe you’d call it “sophisticated funk” – is a combination of all the music I ever knew,’ Charlie Smalls told the LA Times in 1976. ‘I wrote it all from my heart. The lyrics – they’re my life story – I became the characters to create the characters. I used everything that happened to me on my way here. And believe me, some of it wasn’t so good before it got turned into a song.’
The costumes from the stage version of The Wiz are now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. Quincy Jones produced a concert to mark the museum’s opening. Its sobriquet, ‘the Black Smithsonian’, echoes the description of The Wiz as ‘The Black Wizard of Oz’. As The Wiz would make clear, being regarded as ‘the Black’ version of something means a lot to a people previously denied everything.
Diana Ross’s song ‘Home’ has a particular charge in the film. Indigenous Americans, who have been fighting to keep their home since the country’s inception, were described by Baum as ‘despicable beings … untamed and untameable creatures’. (He advocated the extermination of the Sioux Nation.) ‘Home’ is a complicated notion for those who immigrate to America, but a touchstone in the nostalgia-soaked nativism of some of its white citizens, the Proud Boys, QAnon conspiracists and domestic terrorists who seek a return to the supposedly ‘great’ nation undergirded by white supremacy. ‘Oh, and if you’re listening, God,’ Ross sings, ‘please don’t make it hard/To know if we should believe the things that we see/Tell us should we run away, should we try and stay?’ Ross’s number could be a Pan-Africanist dream of repatriation, Marcus Garvey’s red, black and green flag refracted through Oz’s rainbow. From this angle, The Wiz is an allegory of Black American history: a tale of people cast adrift, finding their way home. ‘What am I doing here?’ Dorothy asks. She doesn’t know, and neither do we.
The politics of The Wiz are critical of the kind of celebration it has recently received. The film, like the original, looks down on figureheads. The ‘Wiz’ (Richard Pryor) is, in his own words, ‘a second-rate politician’ from Atlantic City. Despite running for alderman, councilman, assembly leader and, in desperation, dogcatcher, he wasn’t elected to public office. Joe Biden isn’t exactly a second-rate politician, but there are parallels between him and the Wiz, both career campaigners. Biden, who was elected to the US Senate seven times and has stood for president three times, claims he ran in 2020 because of Trump’s response to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. He reportedly believed he was the only Democrat who could win. In a field that included a Black woman, Chicano and Asian American men, several white women and a Black man, this says something about the way Biden sees his country, as well as undermining the very unity he stakes his claim on. In 1991, he failed to back Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against the soon to be confirmed Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas (whose wife enthusiastically endorsed the ‘Stop the Steal’ protests that led to the attack on the Capitol earlier this year). In search of bipartisan ‘unity’, Biden was content to throw a Black woman under the bus. (He has since expressed his ‘regret’ to Hill, but she refuses to call it an apology.)
It has been blizzard time on the East Coast, and like Dorothy and Toto, I have found myself spinning. Things have changed; things have stayed the same. In December, video footage surfaced of a man being handcuffed in front of his family while eating at a food court in Virginia. The police officers are maskless and clueless: the complacency of their aggressive (and mistaken) intrusion into Black family life is all the more shocking for its banality. Another video emerged recently of a Chicago social worker called Anjanette Young, whose home was raided in February 2019. Several police officers, who had mistakenly targeted her apartment, held Young at gunpoint, naked, for thirty minutes. In the bodycam footage, which the office of the city mayor, Lori Lightfoot (a Black woman), tried to suppress, and was originally denied to Young when she filed a Freedom of Information Act request, the officers repeatedly tell her to ‘relax’ and to ‘stop shouting’. ‘Do you have any guns or warrants?’ they demand. Tears are streaming down Young’s face, but she is clearly attempting to hold back her anger. ‘I was afraid to move,’ she told the TV presenter Joy Reid, ‘because, in that moment, I thought if I did anything out of the ordinary that they would shoot me.’ Silence is survival: there’s a thin line, as The Wiz illustrates, between exuberant shouts and terrified screams. When Ross sings the words ‘happy ending’ in ‘Is This What Feeling Gets?’, it’s as if both she and the lyrics are tumbling off the edge of a cliff.
In our new happy ending, things are still amiss. On 29 January, police officers in Rochester, New York, responding to an anonymous report of ‘family trouble’, handcuffed a nine-year-old girl they say was described to them as ‘suicidal’ and pinned her to a patrol car. Before they forced her into the back of the car, the girl, who was wearing flowered leggings and a black sweater, said: ‘Can you please get the snow off me? It’s cold.’ ‘Stop acting like a child,’ a cop says in the bodycam footage. ‘I am a child,’ she cries, between shrieks and requests to see her dad. The officers then spray her in the face with what the city police chief called a ‘chemical irritant’.
Can’t you feel a brand new day? The Biden administration has announced that Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and self-emancipated freewoman, will appear on the $20 bill. The portrait of a person once regarded as capital is to be printed on a banknote. Dark-skinned people, like those who cleaned up the Capitol building after 6 January, have always had to do a lot of work they didn’t bargain for. What do you know: when Dorothy gets back home to Harlem, she still has to finish cleaning the kitchen.