Wednesday, September 10, 2008

art as liberation: why 'the wiz' is so important to us

in this discussion of universal's logo, life is not left without its ironies- the first text you see after the logo is 'a motown production'. this irony works in two ways: (a. the acquisition of motown by MCA/universal in 1988(thus no longer deeming it a 'black owned company') and (b. this is considered in lieu of motown's original philosophy in and of itself- to make black music and personalities palatable to white america.

so... to hear the opening of the score amidst the 'universal' logo (which to me, obviously delivers the sentiment of the blues), and then to see 'a motown production' placed over a cityscape painting with only the faces of people most likely descended from african slaves- black people- i can't do anything but scratch my head and laugh.

(side note in two ways: despite any socio-political philosophies i may not agree with when it comes to him, quincy jones is arguably one of the greatest arrangers/composers/producers out there. 'the wiz', to me, is an amazing piece of cinematic musical documentation. 2nd note: the choreography is by louis johnson; can i assume he is NOT 1/2 of the brothers johnson, and the same person who co-authored 'get on the floor' with the MJ?)

nonetheless, as lumbia the cat (my favourite person in the whole world) was sitting with me watching the film (michael is the only musical artist she will tolerate; she is more of a book person) i was thinking about the perceptions of that false concept we've all been conditioned to believe exists- race. since i have been just as conditioned by it, i am going to speak of the film in relation to it. it has been noted that berry gordy relinquished his responsibility as producer and gave it to rob cohen (apparently, gordy was championing for stephanie mills to play the role of dorothy like she did in the broadway version, but diana ross was also fighting for the role. by 1978 gordy and ross' relationship had been strained, and he decided to remove himself from the production. ross won the role.) so... was the 'motown productions' association a capitalistic attempt to win audiences (one of my main gripes with the company), or did gordy still oversee some of the production, despite not being credited?

joel schumacher wrote the screenplay, dede allen (one of the best) had editing duties, and sidney lumet (my favourite american director) was behind the cameras. this occurred before stephen spielberg attempted to capture a certain 'black experience' with 'the color purple' (another film quincy jones scored). i never read of any debates surfacing around lumet's directing an all-black cast; however, the film did not do well at all upon its release, so any sort of major protest may not be on record. i do feel that ultimately, lumet did a good job- he did what any great director would do- taking one's own voice out of the situation and capturing the perspectives of the potentially empathetic audience. errol morris and abbas kiarostami are excellent in this skill as directors as well. lumet has proven this with films such as '12 angry men' and 'dog day afternoon'. even if these directors' voices do not dominate the film, there is still a quality they have which produces a sort of identification with their respective styles. also in lumet's films, not one character carries weight more than another; each character is central and crucial to the storyline. there are no true 'protagonists', in the traditional sense. just like life. his films teach us, in their own way, to not let judgements cloud our perception of a character.

now, onto the film... the overture which opens the film displays the variety- the vibrancy and the struggles of the communities in which black people historically have dwelled. the art on the brick wall, panning into the gate, then onto the brownstones... but when the overture of 'home' comes on, my eyes water. you see people (who are not yet introduced by name) prepare for a gathering. it is a place bustling with love and togetherness. despite the visual mood, the harmonica solo (by toots thielmans) gives it a solemn texture. this is when we are introduced by name, to dorothy. diana ross (as dorothy) looks great here, and she gives the character a warmth that she was not able to give when she portrayed mahogany, or billie holiday. it's also total proof she doesn't need all that make-up and hair. her natural beauty shines here, with little make-up, and a short afro.

in the scene where we are formally introduced to dorothy she is one of few words. she appears to be a calming presence, amongst all the yelling and excitement. this scene to me, is one of the reasons this film has become a favourite amongst black viewers: the cultural identification with the family gathering; this makes us think of what could be perceived as 'home' that idyllic gathering of various minds with one purpose: to eat, drink and be festive... with the bustling of children and the matriarch to oversee it all.

but there is another side... like dorothy, so many of us feel isolated from that world. 'what am i afraid of/don't know what i'm made of' she sings, tears in her eyes. it's a sentiment shared amongst black people who do not particularly feel rooted in any one aspect of what is known as 'black culture'. with this, depression and loneliness may ensue. 'if i had to take a chance, would someone lead me' dorothy asks. the fear of going out into a new world can be paralysing, and it's extremely difficult to explain why. i empathise with dorothy's frustration. but through my own life's experience, auntie em (the matriarch) is right- one will never know what a full life's experience is like until one actually goes out and experiences it. and of coure, it takes none other than the wisdom of the non-humans for dorothy to experience leaving her comfort zone: if it were not for toto running out into the snowstorm dorothy would have never found her true potential. in this experience (also with the help of glenda)she began to face her fears.

this whole film is rife with timeless social commentary. when dorothy becomes trapped in the tornado and is then with toto is thrown onto the sandbox (representing her role as a kindergarden teacher) in a whole 'nother world she encounters some folks who were victim to repressive laws. without having any creative outlets, kids will create their own art, and their own movements. the scene where the characters were turned into graffiti on the walls due to 'evermean' the county commissioner's response to their creation of art on those walls will to me, forever be a nod to the creation of hip hop culture and its response to the city's treatment of predominately black and brown youth, and eventually the 'establishment's' efforts to squelch that culture. i remember when the new york city transit authority made the decision to place teflon on their cars, so there would be no art on them, and they would be easier to clean off. it was a sad moment in NYC history. dorothy soon meets up with number runners (and who didn't know somebody who ran the numbers?), cab drivers who suddenly decide to be off duty when you step to them (yup yup), and that darn paralysing fear.

next, dorothy meets the crows and the scarecrow. this is actually my favourite scene in the film, and it is a wonderful continuation of the ongoing theme: to never define yourself by cultural limitations. so many of us have been told that 'reading/questioning anything/listening to different types of music/need i go on' are suitable only for white folk, so if you so much as dare act/speak/dress different than what is perceived as 'black' you then have the desire to emulate 'white behaviour'. after experiencing and processing all of this, the scarecrow has become my proverbial hero.

michael jackson (who ELSE, ya'll) plays the scarecrow to such perfect effect. it's interesting to see him in this light, considering his own history with fighting for creative autonomy, even before 1978. he's always been considered 'different' or 'strange' as long as i can remember; he's changed the perceptions of race, class, gender, sexuality and celebrity in one fell swoop. for this i will forever admire him. in his role as the scarecrow you take note of his anxiety and isolation, as he moans 'you can't win' with the lifetime of hundreds of blues artists before him. his nod to the legacy of his musical ancestors is priceless, and his acknowledgement of the misfits of 'black culture' (thus extending to all cultures) must never be forgotten.

the scarecrow's low self-esteem (as we are introduced to him) is indicative of what we as black people have been consistently conditioned to adhere to: you can never succeed by virtue of being black, so don't even try. the crows (who sincerely believe this) attempt to drill this into the scarecrow's head... 'if you so much as THINK beyond where you are, you will be abandoning your culture.' if the educational system in this country prevails, then there is no existence of a toussaint l'overture; no nina simone, ossie davis, charles drew, curtis mayfield, afrika bambaataa, jamilah nasheed, maxine waters, shirley chisolm, sly stone, billy preston, james brown, herbie hancock, jimi hendrix, john henrick clarke, paul robeson, john coltrane, langston hughes, or no STEVIE WONDER. 'knowledge is power!' the scarecrow cries... go on, scarecrow! but you know what? the APPLICATION of that knowledge could shine a whole lot of suns. the scarecrow is the griot, the bearer of information that spans generations.

and let's not forget the eyes of the scarecrow... michael's eyes are my favourite thing about him. as the scarecrow, his sad eyes dart across the astoria studios soundstage, defiantly dancing to words he does not want to believe: 'you... can't... win.' not only does michael contribute to the legacy of his musical ancestors, but he also pays homage to theatre and cinema... all in the course of minutes, michael as the scarecrow takes you on a slapstick ride, evoking chaplin and keaton.

it's 40 minutes into the film, and we've come to meet the tin man. as i am watching this i am attempting to fathom why this film did so poorly when it was released. the character development and the pacing is some of the best of its kind. lumet has succeeded in taking time to explain each character with care. because of this, in a way he represents something of the 'anti-hollywood'.

and nipsey russell, as the tin man, has not yet even blinked. i will dare to say that the tin man represents the demystification of the age-old stereotypical pathology of black men- that they are indeed, heartless, responsibility-dodging, and just plain no good. of course, in this pathology they are that way because they have no feelings. if they do feel anything; if they cry or are forthcoming with emotions, this makes them less of a man. as nipsey russell (rest in peace, dear elder) wonders "if (he) can feel", i can't help but notice the look on michael/scarecrow's face- it's the look of empathy. it's fairly public news that michael is no stranger to tears- most notably his recording of 'she's out of my life', released approximately a year after this film's release. at the end of the ballad, he was crying. (and yeah, i paused this part of the film, and many others, to look at his eyes. and i'll do it again too! just you try to stop me)...

it's interesting to note that when the tin man begins to elaborate on the things he'd like to see himself doing and feeling, this is when he begins to blink. does blinking somehow represent emotion, or having a heart? i mention this because i noticed that al pacino does not blink too much either, as michael corleone in 'the godfather part II', unless he's feeling some sort of remorse, or sadness.

"and if tears should fall from my eyes/just think of all the wounds they could mend"... this is such a touching scene, and for me it represents the healing we truly need as black people right now. if we could feel; if we could empathize, share and listen with one another, would these generational and cultural gaps exist? that vulnerability the tin man speaks of is what is significantly missing from our culture. and like the tinman, we collectively have been "frozen in a position (he) had assumed all too often": hypersexual, a mammy, or a thug; roles that virtually relegate us to being devoid of true vulnerability.

52 minutes into the film we meet the lion. okay, i'm sure some of you know where i am getting at here... the lion, being the king of the (concrete) jungle, essentially gets emasculated and turned into a semi-iconic figure (aka 'a statue'). the lions in our world- malcolm x, patrice lumumba, martin luther king jr., cynthia mc kinney (to name a few of the most well-known) have either been assassinated or defined as insane. MLK even had a holiday named after him (reluctantly), after he could no longer speak. the lions are constantly cut down by being deemed 'too sensitive', 'not logical', 'too wild', 'reading too much into things', and all those lovely things that are given to black people who speak or act out. so, as in the lion's case, black people have had fear put into them... 'see what happened to malcolm? the kennedys? you besta hush yo mouth.' but, like those who ignore those taunts, the lion decides to fight back, gaining his confidence back from the forces that attempted to steal it.

forces like the 'land of poppy love'... perhaps i am being to much of a lion here (heh heh), but is this scene representing the government's set up of drugs in the black community, to keep us asleep? come on ya'll... i can't be reading TOO much into that, in light of everything that's been happening since the film's release... and further reading more into the context of this film (from a socio-political perspective) 'be a lion' to me is crucial, because it is a segway to the overall theme to the film: black power and autonomy. the ironic thing is that it took a white director to show us this, amidst all the so-called 'blaxploitation cinema' in existence in hollywood and beyond at the time. "in your own way, be a lion" dorothy sings. as shown thus far in 'the wiz', we must uphold the various qualities of 'us', creating a space for ourselves to block those who attempt to force these negative elements- be it drugs or otherwise- in our own way, on our terms. 'be a lion' makes me cry, and smile at the same time.

by 1 hour 13 minutes, these various aspects of our culture have been revealed. this is the collective identity of black people in a cinematic framework. obviously, all of us do not share the same qualities. but how many films do you see about black life that does something of this nature?

i am still waiting for an answer.

and so, we finally get to the land of oz... where if you're not seen green, you're nobody. and you "don't tell from your color(s)"... this is another argument... the one of the so-called 'american dream' of assimilation v. black nationalism or pan-africanist theory' (in my humble opinion, MLK was one of the last well-known black nationalists: someone who was truly an advocate for justice in america, yet looking for justice on black terms- just read or listen to his last few speeches)... if one is 'green' does ethnicity ultimately matter? must you relinquish your identity in order to be seen as a full person by so-called white mainstream society (without that society relinquishing any of ITS identity)?

ah, the wiz... the wiz. he's the quintesential politician, the general manager, the C.E.O., the chairman of the board; that inaccessible one who everyone swears is just right but deep down he has got it all wrong. when anyone stands up to this person we cannot even see a shock runs through the walls of the nation, because you know what happens to people who speak up...

the wiz (played perfectly by richard pryor) to me, essentially represents all the qualities we are told we're supposed to have: no heart, no brains (we are introduced to him as a machine) and no courage (he cannot face the people). he wants dorothy to do his dirty work, which is to kill evillene (played by mabel king, who was also in the play's adaptation of 'the wiz'). evillene runs a sweat shop (literally) and is the one (politically speaking) who was planted to maintain the community's collective sleep (the crows make another appearance here). i mean, evillene's even holding a whip... and when evillene melts away (she's allergic to water) it's a 'brand new day', where the "sun is shining just for us", where the day would come when "we'd be free somehow". when that pesky oppression has ceased, we can once again form a collective unity, and "we can show the world that we've got liberty", living "so independently." the day we come to "check it out" we will then leave our dependence on white supremacist ideology behind. these are some of the best pan-africanist sentiments in popular music, thanks to a certain luther vandross... thank you, man. you will not be forgotten.

and at 1:48, michael/scarecrow (my hero) does this absolutely phenomenal spin... oh, so breathtaking. the choreography in this film is amazing.

by 1 hour 52 we see that the wiz has seen a brand new day as well... the politician who could never get elected to public office (herman smith from atlantic city) has let his guard down. this could be attributed to dorothy speaking up to him, something so one else has ever done. the scarecrow (ah...), clearly upset at the wiz being a fraud, responds, "public office is the last refuge of the incompetent!" tell it, scarecrow! therein lies the cynicism of sydney lumet (and so many others): politicians, and those assumed to be in a position of 'power' (even though they have none, as herman has stated about himself) are essentially cowards, so they value ways to maintain domination over the people, be it by violence or de facto censorship. it's easy for some folks behind a desk to summon a group of citizens to murder people in a 'far away land' without having to experience that moment yourself.

in the midst of herman's revelation we once again encounter glenda, the good which of the south (played with warmth by lena horne). glenda was the one, unbeknownst to dorothy, to bring her to the point she gone to by the film's conclusion. the south was a point of travel for so many of our ancestors; it is where so many of our (american) customs lie, before we traveled up north. the south is where we convene- the link between africa and america. america has disengaged us from our language and lineage, over time. glenda, to me, is that acknowledgement of us finding ourselves once again, so we can go back into that cruel world with a new (but not so new) knowledge, and move forward with fearlessness, and love for ourselves and our communities."if we know ourselves, we're always home, anywhere" glenda sings.

and that, my friends, is where home is.

and home... 'home'. the second stephanie mills opens her mouth to sing that song, streams of tears pour down my face. but in writing this and truly thinking about what this extra-special film means to me, diana's rendition makes me cry as well. when she says 'goodbye' to her three friends, my eyes... my eyes. oh, my eyes.

"success, fame and fortune. they're all illusions." so says the scarecrow (this time, quoting himself as opposed to other well-known philosophers); this is the thing which has not been passed onto us as a community. evillene still lurks, under the guise of entities such as viacom. in the eyes of society, we will never adhere to dorothy's wish of "letting people see who (we) really are." we find our comforts in the safety of being 'green', under the hot lights in studios and dance floors, and under make-up and fancy dress.

but i've come to a realization as well, as to why the film did not do so well: despite the screenplay, direction and main production being done by white males (and editing done by a white female), they are behind the scenes. what is missing in front of the camera is quite obvious- every single character in the film is black. to this day (as danny glover can attest to in his quest to cinematically tell the story of toussaint l'overture) white audiences are reluctant to support a film that does not have at least one main white protagonist. people understandably want to see themselves represented on the screen. however, there are HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS of films with no one but white faces, and i see not complaint or protest from the white community. i cannot tell you how many times people have attempted to cut me down in my critique of john hughes' films, for his lack of anything but white faces in much of his work. well, you know what? if you don't wanna see things from anyone else's perspective but your own, then you are not needed. people like haile gerima did not need you, and no one else should need you, if you refuse to leave your comfort zone.

it's a brand new day.

"no one can change the path that you must go"... we must constantly tell ourselves this. we must believe in ourselves, and pass that onto our children, and our children's children. we must stand firm in the midst of all the negative energy. we have to believe in the strength that already exists within us, because "the time will come around when (we) say it's (ours)." it's always been our time, and we've got to acknowledge that in order to make it a reality.

"believe in yourself, 'cos i believe in you."

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