In celebration of Black History Month, we’re making daily movie recommendations, presented in chronological order of the films’ stories.
Stay tuned to Noovie every day as we highlight an original, landmark film worth revisiting or discovering for the first time.
February 12 – The Wiz (1978)
Loosely based on the 1974 Broadway musical of the same name, which was itself a re-imagining of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” in the context of African-American culture, “The Wiz” was a remarkable production for several reasons.
Diana Ross, who championed the film from its earliest stages, took on the role of “Dorothy Gale” as a now-grown black woman living in Harlem. Sidney Lumet, the filmmaker behind such dramas such as “12 Angry Men” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” assumed the director’s chair. Joel Schumacher, the future director of Brat Pack hits such as “The Lost Boys,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Flatliners,” provided the over-the-top screenplay. And a young musical artist named Michael Jackson took on his first major Hollywood role as The Scarecrow.
The story itself, as far as major plot points, follows closely to the original “Wizard of Oz,” but with modern urban updates for the setting and musical numbers. Ross’ Dorothy is now swept up, along with her trusty dog Toto, to a Munchkinland and Emerald City that more closely resemble a fantastical version of ‘70s New York City.
Jackson as the Scarecrow, along with Tin Man (Nipsey Russell) and Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) are all still looking, respectively, for a brain, a heart and courage. The group still encounter the Flying Monkeys who distract from their journey to find the Wizard of Oz. But now those monkeys are a motorcycle gang.
The good and wicked witches are also still present, as is the “great and powerful” Oz, played here by legendary comedian and actor Richard Pryor. The musical numbers aren’t quite as memorable as the original’s tunes – except for maybe the extremely catchy “Ease on Down the Road.” And while “The Wiz” took a beating, commercially and critically, upon its initial release, it’s gained quite a following since as a cult classic that features plenty of oddball, loveable touches, a great and colorful production design, and some pop legends in roles that are still unforgettable.
Coming at the end of the ‘70s and the era of the blaxploitation genre, “The Wiz’s” failure at the box office and with reviewers seemed to relegate it to the dustbin of discarded big budget disasters. Both Ross and Jackson ended their big screen feature acting careers here. But the cult audience for this urban musical, many of whom caught in on tv and video later, continues to grow.
Plus, this is where the film’s music producer, Quincy Jones, met the young Jackson, a positive collaboration which would see them team up once again for the artist’s seminal albums “Off the Wall,” “Thriller” and “Bad.”