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Exploring Black Culture & Costumes in 'The Wiz' Film (1978) and 'The Wiz Live!' Stage Production

Image: Diana Ross as Dorothy in 1978 via lecinemadreams.blogspot.

In all honesty, there’s something inspiring about the style, creative explosion, and traditional African nuances depicted in Black-inspired productions that trigger a sense of pride, belonging, and unity.

While most people would gravitate towards ground-breaking films like Black Panther and Get Out (i.e., since they’re fresh in our memories), it’s worth appreciating the historical and cultural role of The Wiz—a film “forever changed Black culture,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

‘The Wiz’ is basically a Black retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). Its first installment was a 1975 musical adaptation—which was written by William F. Brown, produced by Ken Harper, and featured iconic music/lyrics by Charlie Smalls. It opened at Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre before moving to the Majestic Theatre in Broadway. In 1978, a big-money all-black film adaptation of The Wiz was released—followed by a revival of the original Broadway production in 2015.

Now, what is the relevance of The Wiz in Black/African culture? And how do the costumes fit into the whole narrative? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

The Wiz (1978) – Movie adaptation

Following the success of the 1975 Broadway music (PS: It won “Best Musical” and 6 other Tony Awards), producer Rob Cohen and director Sidney Lumet released a big-money blockbuster that turned out to be a cult classic. The Wiz (1978) featured a star-studded cast of Black pop culture icons—including the likes of Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, and Richard Pryor, among others.

It’s widely celebrated as a film that defined a generation and changed Black pop culture. Some view it as an early piece of cultural art that inspired succeeding Black productions. Any Black person who grew up in the 60s and 70s likely has fond memories of the first time they watched Michael Jackson (Scarecrow) and Diana Ross (Dorothy) skipping, dancing, and singing their melodic tunes.

In a way, The Wiz (1978) sends out a narrative of racial liberation and Afrofuturism by merging traditional African tradition and science/fantasy. The fact that they swapped rural Kansa in Baum’s original story to contemporary Harlem—with the Winkies representing the struggling working class in the urbanized Emerald city—makes the film relatable.

To quote Gertrude Gipson from the Los Angeles Sentinel, “Never have I seen such a colorful production… breathtaking photography, unbelievable make-up, eye-popping costumes, fantastic, creative dancers, and the soulful versatile, innovative music of Quincy Jones. The movie is one of the greatest musicals we have seen in many a year.”

Here are some noteworthy costumes from the film:

Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow

In the film, Michael donned giant clown-esque shoes, a painted-on nose (intended to look like a buttercup wrapper), and a cumbersome costume stuffed with newspapers. According to his make-up artist, Michael R. Thomas, Michael Jackson wore the huge curly scarecrow wig over “very small braids”—both of which draw to traditional African hairstyles.

Diana Ross’ Dorothy

Diana Ross as the shy 24-year-old Dorothy from Harlem is dressed in a flounce skirt that feels bijou—but not too much to make it innocently sweet—and a ruffled purple blouse. The look is capped off by a characteristic African afro that most of us have tried at one time or another. Simple? Yes! Relatable for Black girls and women at the time? Most definitely!

The Wiz Live! (2015) – Stage Production

In an interview with Footwear News, Paul Tazewell (the creative mastermind behind the costumes) elaborates his inspiration behind the dressing: “I got a lot of it from contemporary fashion and runway and couture. I think it runs the gamut of who we referenced — anybody that had an edgier feel we looked at. As you look through the designs for ‘The Wiz,’ there is a McQueen-esque ballgown, but really it’s just taking contemporary fashion and synthesizing it into its own aural of design.”

The all-Black cast boasts of the likes of Mary J. Blige (Evilene), Queen Latifah (The Wiz), newcomer Shanice Williams (Dorothy), Common (Bouncer), Ne-Yo (Tin Man), Uzo Aduba (Glinda), and Amber Riley (Addapearle)—who are decked out in artistically awesome costumes with African/Black nuances. In particular, the combination of fabulous costume patterns, colours, and hairstyles really speaks to African flavour in a lot of ways.

Mary J. Blige’s Evilene

Earlier Evilenes had garish costumes, prosthetics, and terrible wigs—but not Mary J. Blige. She appears as an empowered and queer black Femme with a more humane touch.

Blige sports a majestic traditional African braided crown, bejewelled tie, a corseted top, decorative whips on the hips and shoulders, high-heeled boots, and a badass look that oozes authoritative cruelty.

Shanice William’s Dorothy

Newcomer Shanice Williams plays the iconic Dorothy—who looks the part as a modern young woman. It’s impressive how she rocked the textured and natural twist-outs—and even managed to keep them neat despite the hyper performance throughout Emerald city.

Regarding the magical slippers, Tazewell notes that “We were trying to arrive at a shoe that looks magical and functions, too. Shanice has to get it on very quickly and has a lot of dancing to do in that shoe, so it has to be built like a Broadway dance shoe. To get it to look like a faceted silver shoe, we picked a leather that has a sort of Mylar finish to it. It’s a bit of a patchwork of different leathers that when they lay together, they create [the look we wanted].”

The Munchkins

When it comes to colourful natural African-inspired hairstyles, you have to give it to the Munchkins. From curly do’s, dreadlocks, finger waves, afro puffs, to a host of kinky styles, they offered a galore of African hairstyles.

What is the Takeaway?

Both the film and stage productions of The Wiz have one common theme – they highlight the perseverance of Black people in adversity and they’re a rallying call for racial liberation. Aside from the contextual underpinnings of the plot, The Wiz stands out for its take and celebration of African dressing and hairstyles.

Long story short, it’s a fun and inspiring creative production—and a definite must-watch.

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