Home » Blackbusting Hollywood: Racialized Media Reception, Failure,

Blackbusting Hollywood: Racialized Media Reception, Failure,

Blackbusting Hollywood: Racialized Media Reception, Failure,
and The Wiz as Black Blockbuster
Alfred L. Martin Jr.
JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Volume 60, Issue 2, Winter 2021,
pp. 56-79 (Article)
Published by Michigan Publishing
For additional information about this article
[ Access provided at 9 Sep 2021 05:15 GMT from Ebsco Publishing ]
Alfred L. Martin, Jr., “Blackbusting Hollywood: Racialized Media Reception,
Failure, and The Wiz as Black Blockbuster,” JCMS 60, no. 2 (Winter 2021): 56–79.
Alfred L. Martin, Jr.
Blackbusting Hollywood:
Racialized Media Reception,
Failure, and The Wiz as Black
This article draws attention to The Wiz (Sidney Lumet, 1978) as the first Blackcast blockbuster and reassesses its significance to issues of Black media production, reception, and distribution. With a focus on press reviews, this article
uses what I am theorizing as racialized media reception to understand The
Wiz’s historical and industrial import beyond its $23 million budget for Black
and white reviewers and moviegoers. Providing an analysis of reviews from
both the Black and mainstream presses, archival production documents, and
documents about the film’s distribution, this article argues that film reviews, as
cinematic paratexts, helped to structure consumption and shaped the narrative of The Wiz as a failure.
Within Black film and media studies, The Wiz (Sidney Lumet, 1978) is understood in direct relationship to its US box office failure. Harry Benshoff and
Sean Griffin write only that the film “was a box office disappointment,” and
Christopher Sieving asserts that “the enormous budget . . . ensured severe
losses when [The Wiz] opened to smaller audiences.”1
The discursive centering
of the film’s box office receipts in scholarly and industrial discussions of the
film served as rationale for the scant scholarly engagement paid to the film
1 Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender,
and Sexuality at the Movies, 2nd ed. (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 89; and Christopher Sieving, Soul Searching: Black-Themed Cinema from the March on Washington
to the Rise of Blaxploitation (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 24.
and, more importantly, Hollywood’s disengagement with Black-cast films for
decades afterward. Donald Bogle contends that in the 1970s, Hollywood’s
understanding of African American moviegoers shifted; the decade started
“by revealing to the industry that there was a black audience [and] closed with
the industry believing that the black film and the black audience were both
When films with primarily white casts fail, their whiteness does not
signal a disinterest in white-cast films, but The Wiz’s Blackness was used as an
industrial case study for (white) audience’s diminishing appetite for Black-cast
Throughout this article, I argue that The Wiz’s reputation as a failure
cannot simply be reduced to the lack of attention paid to its financials. It is
also racially inscribed.
Although an example from more than forty years ago, this article uses The
Wiz to explore the precariousness of Hollywood Blackness, a precariousness
about which Black spectators are well aware. In an interview for my project on
Black women and anti-fandom, a Black woman exemplified this knowledge.
She said, “To my understanding, part of the reason projects aren’t greenlit is
because Hollywood is determined that [Black people] don’t support [Black]
films. So, if I just show up with my dollars, I fly in the face of that.”4
While this
woman was discussing her consumption of Tyler Perry’s oeuvre, her rationale
speaks to a larger phenomenon. Black people are often willing to see any
Black-cast film because of its Blackness and because they understand that any
singular Black failure industrially represents the limits of all Black-cast media
content, a phenomena I have elsewhere called “must-see Blackness.”5
In other
words, industrial understandings of Black-cast film production is univocal:
any Black-cast film must be a financial success, or it will vanquish the idea of
making others like it. Such anxieties surfaced around A Wrinkle in Time (Ava
DuVernay, 2018) and Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) as Black spectators
in social media circles described feeling obligated to see the films on opening
weekend to demonstrate the commercial viability of cinematic Blackness.6
The Wiz exposed similar imperatives for Black spectators, primarily
because of its blockbuster aspirations. As the first Black-cast blockbuster, The
Wiz was “separated from the majority of other releases by the size (budget,
reputation, bankable source material) and scope of the project.”7
As Justin
2 Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of
Blacks in American Films (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 266.
3 Monica White Ndounou, Shaping the Future of African American Film: Color-Coded
Economics and the Story Behind the Numbers (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Press, 2014), 204.
4 Alfred L. Martin Jr., “Why All the Hate? Four Black Women’s Anti-Fandom and Tyler
Perry,” in Anti-Fandom: Dislike and Hate in the Digital Age, ed. Melissa A. Click (New
York: New York University Press, 2019), 179.
5 Alfred L. Martin Jr., “Fandom while Black: Misty Copeland, Black Panther, Tyler Perry
and the Contours of US Black Fandoms,” International Journal of Cultural Studies, 22,
no. 6 (2019): 741.
6 My invocation of cinematic blackness borrows from Michael Boyce Gillespie’s Film
Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, 2016), wherein he suggests that “film blackness foregrounds the creative and
critical capacities of cinema with black visual and expressive culture as its signifying
core . . . [and considers] other prerogatives that concentrate on discourse, sedimentations, and modalities” (157).
7 Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1994), 94.
58 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
Wyatt argues, blockbusters are “differentiated through such qualities as more
stars, higher budget, more exciting story.”8
With a $23 million budget, source
material adapted from a Tony Award–winning musical (itself adapted from
the 1939 screen adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz), and a cavalcade of Black stars, The Wiz was imagined as a blockbuster from its inception
as well as within its marketing. In fact, a promotional poster for the film brings
its blockbuster aspirations into sharp focus with the tagline, “THE WIZ! THE
STARS! THE MUSIC! WOW!” (see Figure 1).
This article is about the intertwining discourses of Blackness, failure, and
precarity within Hollywood cinematic production. I examine The Wiz’s film
reviews’ embeddedness within the language of race in a post–civil rights America, noting that while the mainstream (i.e., white) press largely preconfigure
the film within discourses of failure, Black press reviews are undergirded by
an awareness of the precarity of Blackness within the culture industries. By
bifurcating audiences along racial lines, film reviews almost ensured the film’s
reputation as a failure. Building on Jonathan Culler’s theorization that reception studies is “an attempt to understand [a film’s] changing intelligibility by
identifying the codes and interpretative assumptions that give them meaning
for different audiences at different periods,” I use film reviews from The Wiz’s
initial 1978 release.9
Such an examination of film reviews exposes the racialized critical discourse around The Wiz as it collided with debates about Black
authenticity, authorship, and stardom.10
Consideration of The Wiz across racialized discursive systems helps to
explore and expose how film reviews functioned as a form of encoding that
precluded The Wiz from achieving its blockbuster box office goals while
also centering the importance of race and taste cultures. In theorizing taste
cultures, Pierre Bourdieu argues that consumption is “an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or
code . . . A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence . . . into which it is encoded.”11 The Wiz was ultimately a Black-cast blockbuster film that deployed ciphers and codes legible
to Black reviewers, not necessarily white ones, who often used The Wizard of
Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) as the basis for deciphering and decoding The Wiz.
Extending Racquel Gates’s theorization that Black-cast films often function as
two films in one—one for Black viewers and one for white viewers—I suggest
that The Wiz’s cinematic duality was comprised of one film for Black reviewers
and another for white reviewers, which ultimately structured how Black and
white viewers engaged with the film.12
8 Wyatt, 94.
9 Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1981), 13.
10 The Wiz was not the first Black-cast film to suffer this dynamic; early Black-cast films
like Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1929) and Hearts in Dixie (Paul Sloane, 1929) were victim to
similar reception discourses. For further discussion, see Anna Everett, Returning the
Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism, 1909–1949 (Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, 2001); and Ryan Jay Friedman, Hollywood’s African American Films: The Transition to Sound (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011).
11 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard
Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 2.
12 Racquel J. Gates, Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture (Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, 2018), 58.
Figure 1. Promotional poster for The Wiz (Universal Pictures, 1978) exemplifying its reliance on the
tenets of the blockbuster.
60 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
Methodologically, this article employs contextual reception studies of
reviews of The Wiz, which Barbara Klinger maintains help to reveal “the
intimate impact of discursive and social situations on cinematic meaning.”13
Importantly, Jonathan Gray situates film reviews as critical paratexts because
they “can catch the audience at a decisive pre-decoding moment, just as the
text is being born.”14 Gray’s theorization is fundamental to understanding how
film reviews can prestructure an audience’s engagement with a film. Thus, I
am suggesting that film reviews are a key component in the cultural production of a film product. It is not that producers and studios are actively courting reviewers to engender positive reviews; rather, it is that film reviews are not
simply about the reception of a film product but that they can impact distribution and are often used to market films to audiences. The importance of film
reviews to overall film marketing became particularly salient as the 1960s saw
an “increase in esteem for film critics whose opinions were newly recognized
as valuable and to whom audiences may have ceded their opinion rights.”15
Relatedly, Neil Terry and his co-authors assert that “good reviews are expected
to stir curiosity and identify quality, while poor reviews are expected to limit
the interest of the influential early adopters.”16 Recognizing film reviews, and
reviewers’ import, I draw on reviews of The Wiz within mainstream and Black
presses between 1977 and 1978. My focus on mainstream reviews centers
the importance of such reviews seeking to engage with potential non-Black
viewers as they made choices about the films they would see in movie theaters,
recognizing that, as Tamara Shepherd argues, every publication works as “its
own distinct discursive system.”17
These discursive systems are particularly important as they reify taste cultures and expose the functions of what I am calling racialized media reception.
On one hand, racialized media reception is rooted in the racial divarication of
Blackness in America and, in the case of The Wiz, a post–civil rights America.18
On the other hand, my theorization of racialized media reception extends
beyond merely examining race and reception, as it shows how reception is
also ensnared in media industry practices including production, publicity,
distribution, exhibition, and reception.
Racialized media reception is further informed by John Fiske’s assertion
that the film reviewer, like any active viewer, is a “social subject [who] has
a history, lives in a particular social formation (a mix of class, gender, age,
region, etc.), and is constituted by a complex cultural history that is both
13 Barbara Klinger, “Film History Terminable and Interminable: Recovering the Past in
Reception Studies,” Screen 38, no. 2 (1997): 108.
14 Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts
(New York: New York University Press, 2010), 166.
15 Shyon Baumann, Hollywood Highbrow: From Entertainment to Art (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2007), 156.
16 Neil Terry, Michael Butler, and De’Arno De’Armond, “The Determinants of Domestic Box
Office Performance in the Motion Picture Industry,” Southwestern Economic Review 38,
no. 1 (2005): 142.
17 Tamara Shepherd, “Rotten Tomatoes in the Field of Popular Cultural Production,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 18, no. 2 (2009): 31.
18 See Everett, Returning the Gaze; and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
social and textual.”19 These axes of identity contribute to racialized media
reception. In other words, a “good” film that exists outside a reviewer’s
notions of taste might be reviewed negatively because it does not appeal to
the reviewer’s racial formation. This is most clearly articulated in the disjuncture between white critics’ reviews of films produced by Tyler Perry and the
box office returns for such films. As I have discussed elsewhere, Perry’s first
Lionsgate-distributed film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman (Darren Grant, 2005),
was panned by mainstream reviewers. However, a white reviewer for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Jack Garner, makes his (and by extension, other
potential white viewers’) racial formation central by suggesting that white
people might not “get” what Tyler Perry was attempting to convey.20 Because
cultural referents often divaricate along racial and other axes of identity,
racialized media reception attempts to parse mainstream understandings of
non-white media’s fluctuation according to the race of the reviewer, a variation that can be observed within film reviews of The Wiz. I juxtapose mainstream reviews of The Wiz with those that appeared in Black press, recognizing
that, as Anna Everett contends, Black newspapers “became African America’s
voice with which to ‘talk back’ to mainstream American society . . . [and] communicate with itself.”21
Because film reviews can only tell part of the story of The Wiz’s perceived
failure, I intersperse archival materials from the Schomburg Center for
Research in Black Culture’s collection on The Wiz as well as the Ken Harper
Papers held at the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Collection to
augment the film’s media reception with documentation about The Wiz’s planning, production, and distribution. To think through the latter, I examine its
distribution in Detroit and Chicago to demonstrate the racialized logics within
The Wiz’s distribution, production, and reception.
In sum, this article argues that film reviews are a form of audience encoding that structures the parameters within which a media text can be decoded.
While film reviews are most often subsumed into media reception studies and
conversations about paratexts, I want to consider them as a form of media
production because they generate forms of knowledge that can actively
encourage or discourage viewers from engaging with a particular film. I begin
by questioning the assumption that The Wiz was a failure before turning to its
industrial context, paying particular attention to not only the larger machinations of the film industry in the 1970s but also the struggles The Wiz underwent in order to finally make it to movie screens.
As a Black kid growing up in Detroit, it never occurred to me that The Wiz was
anything other than a success. The Wiz was as special and important as The
Wizard of Oz to me, and both films were seasonal rituals in our household. The
Wizard of Oz aired annually around Easter, while The Wiz aired in November
because its opening scene depicts a family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
19 John Fiske, Television Culture (New York: Routledge, 1987), 62.
20 Martin, “Why All the Hate?,” 166.
21 Everett, Returning the Gaze, 6.
62 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
As an adult and as a media studies scholar, I have only seen The Wiz’s
impact on popular culture grow. In 2013, the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas, hosted a special screening of The Wiz, and in 2018, the Alamo Drafthouse chain hosted screenings of the film at outposts across the country.22
For NBC’s third live televised musical, it chose The Wiz (2015), and instead of
utilizing imagery from the Broadway musical (on which the live version would
be based), news stories used imagery from the film version. The series finale
of Black Dynamite: The Animated Series (Cartoon Network, 2011–2015) heavily
satirized The Wiz’s soundtrack and plot for its “The Wizard of Watts” episode.
One of the plotlines for the Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, 2013–2019) episode “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull” revolves around Taystee’s selection of The
Wiz for the prison’s movie night. Finally, the 2017 episode of It’s Always Sunny
in Philadelphia (FX, 2005–2012; FXX, 2013–) titled “The Gang Turns Black”
utilizes The Wiz as its central conceit for a musical episode about race in America. I briefly mention these cultural moments to suggest, as Jack Halberstam
does, that perceptions about failure provide an opportunity to disrupt and
examine “the supposedly clean boundaries between . . . winners and losers.”23
While Halberstam is not discussing the politics of film and media finances, I
want to use his engagement with winning and losing to investigate the liminal
space within which The Wiz operated. Certainly, focusing on box office–centric
metrics might cement The Wiz’s position as a failure because, as Scott Sandage
argues, within a capitalist system, success means profit, while failure is equated
with financial loss.24
It is true that The Wiz only recouped $13 million of its $23 million budget
at the US box office; however, its cultural and market import far outstrips its
initial domestic returns. To understand this impact, we must move beyond
domestic theatrical returns when measuring the film’s success. The Wiz was
released before the home video market took off, but its broadcast syndication
rights were a significant part of the film’s ultimate financial success. Recognizing the pivotal role that ancillary markets played in the film’s cultural life allows
a repositioning of The Wiz’s failure as one rooted only in the US box office.
To move away from a US box office–centered model of a film’s success,
it is important to appraise ancillary markets, which have not heretofore been
considered within narratives about The Wiz. For instance, Variety reported that
CBS purchased television syndication rights for The Wiz for $5 million while
the film was still in production.25 That, of course, only accounts for the first
“multiple airings” on CBS and does not cover any future syndication deals.26
In addition, the film collected another $6.8 million in international box office
receipts from markets including the United Kingdom, France, and Japan.
During its opening weekend in London, The Wiz earned the equivalent of
22 Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, accessed June 16, 2020, https://drafthouse.com/show
23 Judith [Jack] Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
2011), 3.
24 Scott A. Sandage, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2005), 10.
25 Staff, “CBS-TV Paid $6,500,000 for ‘Butch & Sundance’: A Good Deal for Fox,” Variety,
August 22, 1979, 68.
26 Staff, 68.
more than $40,000, a figure that was more than four times higher than the
previous year’s high at the single screen on which the film was exhibited.27
These figures suggest that The Wiz likely broke even with respect to its production budget (i.e., excluding marketing costs). In the sections that follow, I
trace The Wiz’s journey to the silver screen before engaging with the racialized
ways it was reviewed in mainstream and Black presses.
The Wiz was produced at an important time in film history. During the late
1960s, Hollywood lost money by attempting to attract older, white audiences
with big budget fare like Doctor Doolittle (Richard Fleischer, 1967) and Hello,
Dolly! (Gene Kelly, 1969). By the 1970s, the industry was unsure how it could
continue to make money and attract the kinds of audiences it needed to
remain financially viable, particularly with the rising import of television as
an ancillary market.28 Simultaneously, as recounted within the pages of Time,
“Hollywood finally took note of two basic facts: first, with movie theaters
clustering in big cities and whites moving to the suburbs, the black sector of
the moviegoing public was growing rapidly . . . second, the black audience
was hungry for films it could identify with.”29 The “surprise” success of Sweet
Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971) made Hollywood stand
up and take notice. The film made $15 million at the box office, easily recouping its $500,000 budget. More importantly, gesturing toward Time’s assertion
that Black audiences were hungry for Black-cast films, the audience for Sweet
Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was estimated to be 95 percent Black.30 After the
success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Hollywood recognized that it could
make relatively inexpensive Black-cast films and enjoy big profits. Novotny
Lawrence suggests that the subgenre known as Blaxploitation films was the
“result of favorable conditions [that led] the film industry [to] briefly turn
its attention to African American moviegoers, a long-ignored demographic
that demonstrated its economic power by frequenting theaters in droves.”31
This cycle of films, made between 1971 and 1975, helped to rescue Hollywood
from its financial doldrums with hits including Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971),
Super Fly (Gordon Parks Jr., 1972), and Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974). While The
Wiz decidedly should be understood within the Blaxploitation cycle, Lumet’s
film (and the stage musical on which it was based) followed in the footsteps of
1970s Black cinematic fare that took white stories and told them from Black
perspectives, such as Blacula (William Crain, 1972), Black Caesar (Larry Cohen,
1973), and Norman . . . Is That You? (George Schlatter, 1976).
In the mid-1970s, Hollywood lost interest in Black-cast films as returns
began to diminish. At the same time as Blaxploitation’s temporary reign was
coming to an end, the studios began investing in blockbuster action films
27 Chris Brown, “‘The Wiz’ Is a Winner!,” Screen International, April 14, 1979, 2.
28 Thomas Schatz, “The New Hollywood,” in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, ed. Jim Collins, Ava Preacher Collins, and Hilary Radner (New York: Routledge, 1992), 13–17.
29 “Black Market,” Time, April 10, 1972, 57.
30 James P. Murray, To Find an Image: Black Films from Uncle Tom to Super Fly (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), 81.
31 Novotny Lawrence, introduction to Beyond Blaxploitation, ed. Novotny Lawrence and
Gerald R. Butters, Jr. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016), 1.
64 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
that could appeal to several demographic groups. Action-adventure blockbusters such as Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (George Lucas,
1977) began to breathe new life into Hollywood’s bottom line, bringing the
industry back from the losses it suffered before the Blaxploitation cycle.32 The
Wiz emerged at this crossroad, positioned as it was to be all of these things: a
Black-cast film musical that had the aspirations (and the budget) of the tentpole films Hollywood was now interested in making.
During its Broadway conceptualization, producer Ken Harper envisioned
The Wiz as a musical production that could transfer from stage to screen.33
However, Harper soon faced a big problem: The Wiz was not initially a hit on
Broadway. In fact, the original Broadway production posted its closing notice
on opening night.34 But through ticket giveaways, Black church outreach,
and a cash infusion of $1.1 million from 20th Century Fox (Fox) to aid in
marketing and promotion, The Wiz eventually became a Broadway hit. Fox’s
backing came with the caveat that the studio would have “first option on film
rights, publishing rights and album rights.”35 Fox hoped that The Wiz’s seven
Tony Awards and its now-healthy box office would ensure its success as a film
property for the studio.36 But while The Wiz ultimately became a Broadway success, it is important to note that the stage production was not an immediate
hit with either critics or audiences, which made many studios, including Fox
and Warner Bros., doubt Harper’s assertion that a stage-to-screen adaptation
would make financial sense.
Although Fox invested heavily in The Wiz’s Broadway production, the
studio let its option expire. Harper shopped the film around Hollywood and
found a cheerleader in Warner Bros’s then-vice president of marketing, Warren N. Lieberfarb. Warner Bros. was soon to release the Black-cast film Sparkle
(Sam O’Steen, 1976), which was made for $1 million and grossed $4 million
at the US box office. In an internal memo, Lieberfarb writes, “The preferable
route [for The Wiz] . . . would be to cast the property with known stars in principal roles and cameos. This would dramatically increase audience want-to-see,
lower the possibility that it would be perceived as a Black picture and probably improve negotiable terms with exhibitors.”37 Lieberfarb cites Tommy (Ken
Russell, 1975), specifically its utilization of bona fide stars including Elton
John, Jack Nicholson, and Tina Turner, as a model for casting the cinematic
version of The Wiz. While Warner Bros. did not choose to produce The Wiz, the
internal memo is illuminating because it demonstrates that the film was never
imagined as a “small” film like the Blaxploitation fare from which Hollywood
had recently disengaged. Lieberfarb’s memo also makes clear that The Wiz had
to have crossover appeal in order to help the studio distribute the film more
widely than typical for a Black-cast film (musical or otherwise).
32 Ed Guerrero, “The So-Called Fall of Blaxploitation,” Velvet Light Trap 64 (Fall 2009): 91.
33 According to notes in the Ken Harper Papers, held at the New York Public Library,
Harper initially envisioned The Wiz as a television special.
34 “Selling a Broadway Show or How ‘The Wiz’ Was Won,” Playbill, May 1975, 8.
35 “Selling a Broadway Show,” 8.
36 Correspondence from Warren N. Lieberfarb to Ted Ashley, January 14, 1976, *T-Mss
1991–012, box 3, folder 2, Ken Harper Papers, New York Public Library.
37 Lieberfarb Correspondence, box 3, folder 2.
After Warner Bros. passed on The Wiz as a Black-cast crossover blockbuster
film, Harper approached Motown as an obvious producing partner given its
creation of the “Motown Sound” that appealed to white and Black listeners
alike. In addition, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Berry Gordy, founder and
then-president of Motown Records, began to diversify his media interests into
film and television production under the moniker Motown Productions. The
Diana Ross vehicle Lady Sings the Blues (Sidney J. Furie, 1972) demonstrated
Motown Productions’ intent to produce Black-cast films that were undergirded by similar philosophies as its recording arm—that is, Black content
that could appeal to white and Black consumers alike. Motown thus attempted
to deploy its success producing crossover musicians like Diana Ross, Michael
Jackson, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder to also produce crossover
cinematic content similar to The Wiz. The notion of crossover stars was of paramount importance because, as Manthia Diawara rightly claims, “Hollywood’s
Blacks exist primarily for White spectators whose comfort and understanding
the films must seek.”38 While The Wiz on Broadway could celebrate unapologetic Blackness for a New York “elite” audience, the film had to play (and capture big box office returns) across America. In this way, then, the cinematic
iteration of The Wiz had to adjust its mode of address for a broader audience.
Thus, the partnership between Motown Productions and Universal Pictures to
make The Wiz made good business sense.
Given the crossover imperative that the film feature big-name Black stars,
Diana Ross was cast as Dorothy, singer/pop music sensation Michael Jackson
as the Scarecrow, acclaimed comedian Richard Pryor as the Wiz, and Lena
Horne as Glinda the Good. Sidney Lumet, famed for his directorial work on
12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976), directed
the film with a script by Joel Schumacher. In Schumacher’s adaptation, Dorothy is a twenty-four-year-old elementary school teacher who lives with Aunt
Em and Uncle Henry in Harlem. In departing from the 1939 screen and the
1975 stage adaptation, which retain Dorothy’s origin in Kansas, Schumacher
urbanized the familiar story by placing the film’s action in New York. As Paula
Massood observes, such conflation of Blackness with urbanity is endemic in
Black-cast films of the later twentieth century.39 In every version of the script
available within the Schomburg archive, Dorothy’s origin is located within
spaces where people of color have historically lived within New York. In the
first draft, she is from Queens, and in the second draft, she lives in Brooklyn’s
Park Slope neighborhood before finally landing in Harlem in the final blocking script.40
Unlike Blaxploitation films, which principally appealed to Black
viewers, with a $23 million budget, its producers could not afford to make
The Wiz for Black viewers alone. It needed to appeal equally, if not more,
38 Manthia Diawara, “Black American Cinema: The New Realism,” in Black American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara (New York: Routledge, 1993), 3.
39 Paula J. Massood, Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 1.
40 The Wiz Scripts, Sc MC 320, box 1, folders 1–4, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books
Division, The Wiz Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New
66 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
to white viewers. Desirée Garcia details Motown and Universal’s attempt to
create a film that was both universal and particular. She notes that Lumet
attempted to highlight the film’s universal themes in interviews to center
its appeal for white viewers, hoping that the Blackness of its cast and use
of Black vernacular would be specific enough for Black moviegoers.41 Put
another way, as Gates suggests of Coming to America (John Landis, 1988),
the film had to be two films at once: one for Black viewers and one for
white viewers.42 Gene Siskel articulated the stakes of Black film generally
and The Wiz specifically when he wrote that Black films needed to cross
over and draw not only Black viewers but also a large swath of white viewers
in order to be considered successful.43
Still, Lieberfarb thought The Wiz, as a motion picture property, had the
potential to achieve success. In fact, he argued that “if any story would appear
unlikely material for a Black musical, it is FRANK L. BAUM’s classic THE
WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. During the past 12 months the hit Broadway
musical THE WIZ has proven the foregrounding erroneous.”44 He continues
by suggesting that in passing on the project, Fox’s “mistake lies in perceiving
the motion picture as inherently limited to the Black audience. The nature
of the material, the composition of the audiences on Broadway . . . all lead
me to the conclusion that THE WIZ could be a mass audience movie. THE
WIZ is as black as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was Jewish! FIDDLER generated
$35 million domestic film rental.”45 Lieberfarb’s comparison of The Wiz to
Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, 1971) is problematic yet important in
that it ignores the differences between Blackness and Jewishness. As Susan
Kray observes, “the majority of American Jews are perhaps best categorized
as ‘almost white.’”46 At the same time, Seth Wolitz argues that the film version
of Fiddler on the Roof functions as an “Americanization of Tevye expressed
[through] the validation of Jewish-American participation in American life.”47
These two scholarly assertions help to center The Wiz’s fundamental difference
from Fiddler on the Roof because while the Motown Sound might have been
construed as “almost white,” stars Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, while
beloved, could not be subsumed into such a categorization.
In addition, Lieberfarb’s comparison ignores the changes in the film
business between the early 1970s and late 1970s. The musical was not a genre
of film that American filmgoers clamored to see in the 1970s. However,
musicals did not completely disappear during the decade; there were notable
critical and box office successes, such as Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972), Saturday
Night Fever (John Badham, 1977), and Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978). But other
41 Desirée J. Garcia, The Migration of Musical Film: From Ethnic Margins to American Mainstream (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014), 170.
42 Gates, Double Negative, 58.
43 Gene Siskel, “Films That Need White to Finish in the Black,” Chicago Tribune, October
12, 1976, A1.
44 Lieberfarb Correspondence, box 3, folder 2.
45 Lieberfarb Correspondence, box 3, folder 2.
46 Susan Kray, “Orientalization of an ‘Almost White’ Woman: The Interlocking Effects of
Race, Class, Gender, and Ethnicity in American Mass Media,” Critical Studies in Media
Communication 10, no. 4 (1993): 350.
47 Seth L. Wolitz, “The Americanization of Tevye or Boarding the Jewish ‘Mayflower,’”
American Quarterly 40, no. 4 (1988): 516.
1970s musicals did not fare as well, including 1776 (Peter H. Hunt, 1972),
Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison, 1973), and Mame (Gene Saks, 1974).48
Additionally, in discussing The Wiz and its box office potential, Variety’s Frank
Segers notes that while eager viewers lined up for a preview of the film at
New York’s Astor Plaza and quickly sold out the theater, “the audience was,
however, predominantly black.”49 While Segers is quick to suggest that Black
viewers voraciously consuming the film is not necessarily problematic, he
nonetheless postulates that given the film’s budget, it could not afford to be a
niche film for Black patronage only.
Given Universal’s focus on The Wiz’s need to attract white spectators, it
is no surprise that its distribution and exhibition strategy focused primarily
on white audiences. In the Hollywood Reporter, Charles Ryweck attempts to
speak directly to exhibitors who might be hesitant to book the film because
of its Blackness: “to put it succinctly, The Wiz . . . spells money in the bank
for exhibitors.”50 When The Wiz opened in the Detroit metropolitan area,
only one of the seven theaters in which the film was screened was in the city,
while a second theater was in neighboring Harper Woods, historically home
to a large African American population.51 The rest were in predominantly
white neighborhoods. Importantly, though, Black moviegoers helped The
Wiz collect $49,593 in its first three days of exhibition at the Americana
Theater in Detroit.52
A similar story can be observed in Chicago, where two of the seven
theaters exhibiting The Wiz were in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Butters details how Black moviegoers in Chicago began attending Loop-area
theaters to see movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the 2,649-
seat State-Lake Theatre, which exhibited The Wiz in 1978.53 The Wiz earned
$82,688 at the State-Lake and another $21,156 at Ford City #1, a movie house
on the city’s historically Black South Side.54 While it is entirely possible that
Black moviegoers could have traveled to the suburbs of Detroit or Chicago to
see The Wiz, Universal’s distribution strategy nevertheless reveals the power of
racialized media reception: white moviegoers were seen as the primary target
for the film, while Black spectatorship and reviews were taken for granted
given the ways Black viewers typically rush to see Black-cast content. As such,
mainstream reviews carried significant import for the film’s perceived success.
Despite the labor of the production, racialized media reception structured The Wiz’s film reviews across Black and mainstream presses. Garcia
suggests that “in the reception for The Wiz, the producers hoped, stardom
would trump race,” but the reviews for the film reveal a marked racial division
48 Matthew Kennedy, Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2014), 246–247.
49 Frank Segers, “Will ‘The Wiz’ Ease on Down the Road to Box-Office Ahs?,” Variety,
October 12, 1978, 2.
50 Charles Ryweck, “The Wiz,” Hollywood Reporter, October 2, 1978, 4.
51 “The Yellow Brick Road Is Paved with Gold!,” Variety, November 1, 1978, 8–9.
52 “Yellow Brick Road,” 8–9.
53 Gerald R. Butters Jr., From Sweetback to Super Fly: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago’s Loop (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2015), 25.
54 “Yellow Brick Road,” 8–9.
68 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
that overdetermined the film’s chances of success along racial lines.55 Shyon
Baumann argues that film reviews, and the quotes that can be pulled from
such reviews for marketing purposes, “act as a spending guide” for potential spectators.56 In this way, then, film reviews of The Wiz provide important
insight not only on how film reviewers understood The Wiz but also on how
reviews may have structured viewer choice. The remainder of this article
examines The Wiz’s reviews and exposes the delicate balance the film had to
navigate between universality for white (re)viewers and its particularity for
Black (re)viewers. Both sets of reviewers were operating within racialized
media reception.
Turning to reviews from African American–focused newspapers illuminates
the investment Black reviewers had in Black image production, itself a form
of racialized media reception. Michael Dawson suggests that the Black press
served as an important component of the Black public sphere by providing
information and commentary for and about Black American life, politics,
and culture.57 Likewise, Everett details the central debates within Black press
around depictions of cinematic Blackness in reviews of early sound films,
such as Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1929) and Hearts in Dixie (Paul Sloane, 1929),
noting that the Black press heralded the films for the opportunities they
provided Black performers while concomitantly expressing concern about the
ways such films trafficked in stereotypes of Blackness.58 Similar tensions arose
within reviews of The Wiz with two broad themes emerging. First, Black press
seized on the notion that The Wiz was decidedly not a Blaxploitation film, films
that were often met with derision within Black press for their representational
politics. For example, in September 1972, Chicago’s Daily Defender reported
that several Black civic organizations were demonstrating in opposition to
Super Fly and the industrial proliferation of Black-cast films that contained
“insidious and leprous dialogue.”59 The Wiz’s departure from these tropes
partially contributed to the film being heralded within Black press as a mustsee for Black spectators. Second, and rooted within The Wiz’s must-seeness,
was an acknowledgment of the intertwining politics of the Hollywood industry
and Black representation. As a Black blockbuster, Black press’s reviews often
underscored that the future of Black-cast films in Hollywood hinged on the
success of The Wiz.
In Black press reviews, The Wiz was positioned within notions of Black
civic duty that tethered a politics of representation to industrial knowledge
about The Wiz’s importance to the future of cinematic Blackness. In other
words, the burden of representation created an attendant Black spectatorial
55 Garcia, Migration of Musical Film, 166.
56 Baumann, Hollywood Highbrow, 157.
57 Michael C. Dawson, “A Black Counterpublic? Economic Earthquakes, Racial Agenda(s),
and Black Politics,” Public Culture 7, no. 1 (1994): 206.
58 Everett, Returning the Gaze, 191–192.
59 Michael L. Culbert, “New Group Joins ‘Super Fly’ Fray,” Daily Defender, September 7,
1972, 5.
burden; if there is “good” Black-cast media, then Black viewers often feel compelled to see it. Certainly, as Black press was invigorated by post–civil rights
era politics, both Black journalists and some Black moviegoers were searching
for uplifting Black images. Allyson Field details how early-twentieth-century
“uplift film” centered “individual initiative, mutual assistance, social respectability, interracial cooperation, and economic independence as components
of a general strategy for promoting the advancement of African Americans.”60
While The Wiz was produced far later than the films Field theorizes as “uplift
films,” many of the tenets of those films can be observed in Black news outlets’
reviews of Lumet’s film. Reviewing The Wiz for the Pittsburgh Courier, Bekka
Rasul suggests that one of the film’s lessons is that “things that you really want
you don’t have to look beyond yourself for them, because they are really inside
of yourself . . . if you ‘believe in yourself!!’”61 In this instance, Rasul relies on
notions of bootstrapping to argue that Dorothy’s problems can be overcome
by “looking inside of yourself” and that change occurs through individual initiative, not through blaming the systemic issues that might otherwise structure
Black people’s hardships within American culture.
The reviews within Black media outlets also cite Hollywood’s historical
engagement with Blackness to encourage readers to demonstrate that Black
moviegoers will go to the cinema to see Black-cast films like The Wiz. In a
November 11, 1978, article, a reporter for Cleveland’s Call and Post, Billy
Rowe, articulates the industrial burden The Wiz is forced to carry, writing,
“This is the biggest budgeted film, musical or otherwise, to ever top-cast
black superstars and featured performers. Its box office success would change
the face of the silver screen. . . . The subtle battle to hold the line and not
shakeup the system, through the failure of so costly a black film, is not beyond
the realm of possibility. The ‘they’ who put forth all the above theories, and
then some, would do anything to keep that from happening.”62 Two threads
are important within Rowe’s assessment. First, he sets the stakes for the success
of the film by foregrounding its budget and the historic precedent within
Hollywood film production. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Rowe
positions the film against white hegemony and the politics of Hollywood film
production. He implicitly advances the notion that if Black moviegoers help
make the film a box office success, then despite the industry’s reticence to
produce Black-cast films, it will follow the money to produce more Black-cast
films with big budgets.
Two weeks later, Rowe again used his column to advise Black readers:
“Don’t let anybody turn you away from this eye and ear adventure, this is the
first time in the history of [Hollywood] that so much money . . . has been
readily spent on an all-black cast film production.”63 Here Rowe is seemingly
responding to the mainstream press’s largely negative assessment of The Wiz
60 Allyson Nadia Field, Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the
Possibility of Black Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 3.
61 Bekka Rasul, “‘The Wiz’ . . . From Laughter . . . To Concern . . . To Pride,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 13, 1979, 10.
62 Billy Rowe, “‘The Wiz’—A $30 Million Gamble,” Call and Post, November 11, 1978, 6A.
63 Billy Rowe, “Black Investors Put Millions in Producing ‘Wiz,’” Call and Post, November
25, 1978, 6B.
70 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
and cautioning Black moviegoers against listening to those naysayers; he suggests that a Black-cast film’s success can prove to Hollywood that Black viewers
crave imagery divorced from stereotypic tropes associated with cinematic
Blackness. Rowe’s review simultaneously affirms Everett’s theory that part
of the utility of the Black press was its position as a Black public sphere that
allowed journalists as well as its readers to engage in a call and response to
white news media.64 The Black press encouraging Black moviegoers to see The
Wiz seemed to work—in Detroit and Chicago, the urban and “Black” movie
houses contributed to 48 percent and 65 percent of the film’s box office haul,
respectively, in its first three days of exhibition.65
Other Black press reporters echoed Rowe’s claims. In the Amsterdam
News, Marie Moore similarly situates the importance of The Wiz within the
film industry: “Once again, the talents of Black artists served as a regenerative source to put life back into an insipid medium which many New Yorkers
watched become stifled or bankrupt due to financial crises. . . . Just as Black
exploitative films in the early ’70s strengthened a waning film industry, The
Wiz hopefully will be the beginning of a new era of lucrative and qualitative
Black films.”66 Such reviews reveal a Black investment in representations of
Blackness that have high production values and can be reductively construed
as “positive.” Accordingly, Jet magazine praised The Wiz as a different kind
of Black film that deviated from Blaxploitation films and featured a sense of
Black escapism, “on the order of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third
Kind.”67 It is true that historically Black-cast films do not typically hew toward
fantasy, but comparing The Wiz to recent spectacular mainstream blockbusters
is rhetorically important for other reasons. Although The Wiz was celebrated as
an unapologetically Black film within the Black press, Jet’s choice to compare
it to big budget white films—and not successful Blaxploitation films or even
Motown Productions’ Lady Sings the Blues—gestures toward the reliance on
white taste cultures for legitimation. This move centers both the film’s Black
particularity and its mainstream universality.
Furthering this connection to mainstream white culture, Moore heralds
The Wiz’s debut performance as part of her conviction that it would be a box
office hit. She writes that The Wiz “broke the opening day box office record
at the Loew’s Astor Place Theatre on Broadway, registering a tremendous
$22,009 on the following Wednesday. The previous record holder was Star
Wars with $20,322 on Wednesday, May 25, 1977. Despite the many adverse
detrimental reviews by critics . . . the movie appears to be on its way to phenomenal success.”68 While The Wiz indeed broke the box office record at Astor
Place, it is important that, as Variety’s Segers pointed out, the majority of The
Wiz’s audience at the Astor Place was black.69
Some reviewers at Black newspapers understood the exceptional spectacle of a Black-cast blockbuster in the 1970s; as Gertrude Gipson of the Los
64 Everett, Returning the Gaze, 6.
65 “Yellow Brick Road,” 8–9.
66 Marie Moore, “Gee Wiz!,” New York Amsterdam News, November 4, 1978, D10.
67 “Sneak Preview of Diana Ross with ‘Wiz’ Stars,” Jet magazine, October 26, 1978, 22–23.
68 Moore, “Gee Wiz!,” D10.
69 Segers, “Will ‘The Wiz’ Ease,” 2.
Angeles Sentinel gushed, “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.”70 Importantly, Gipson draws on formalist and aesthetic assessments rather than affective arguments to underscore her claims about the
film’s excellence. In so doing, Gipson gestures toward the ways white films
were understood as “quality” based on aesthetic valuations, even though her
audience was specifically Black.
Two reviewers at Black newspapers did enter what might be considered
negative reviews of The Wiz, yet they are both carefully measured in their
critiques of the film. The Philadelphia Tribune’s Jovida Joylette summarizes the
film by writing, “In the final analysis, ‘The Wiz’ is over-promoted, over-done,
but yet in its own way is a unique film in a category all its own. It is dazzling
and star-studded music filled and colorful and it is a spectacle, however, other
than the spectacle, it’s rather short on imagination.”71 Joylette seems, in some
ways, to dislike The Wiz because of the hype surrounding it, yet she acknowledges that a viewer who wants to see a spectacle would enjoy The Wiz. For her,
The Wiz is not necessarily a bad film, nor should Black viewers stay away from
it. Rather, she positions her review as her own without necessarily deciding for
the Philadelphia Tribune’s readership whether or not they should see the film.
It is also important that Joylette’s review appears on the same page as an ad for
the film that features its tagline: “The Wiz! The Stars! The Music! Wow!” The
spatial relationship between a somewhat tepid review of the film and an ad for
the film with a rave review works to potentially mitigate the negative implications of Joylette’s review.
Like Joylette, Nelson George frames his review in the Amsterdam News
as a personal assessment of The Wiz rather than an attempt to deter readers
from seeing the film. His review begins with his assertion that “personally I
enjoyed The Wiz.”72 However, George also rejects the idea that The Wiz might
be a Black film given that it employed a white director and white screenwriter.
For George, the film’s gestures toward the universal prevent it from being the
authentic Black film that it could be, even if it was enjoyable. It is also significant that George’s tepid Amsterdam News review appears in the same issue and
section as Moore’s aforementioned review. Moore’s review was the November
4, 1978, cover story, and notably, it praises The Wiz.
Ultimately, Black press largely praised The Wiz and encouraged their
readers to see the film, but their assessments are not outside racialized media
reception. The reviewers are operating from within a racial logic that centers
the importance of Black cinematic content that is high budget and avoids
stereotypical representations of Blackness. Their logic reveals the racialized
reception cultures surrounding the film. They also suggest that Black press
70 Gertrude Gipson, “‘The Wiz’ . . . A Fantastic Experience,” Los Angeles Sentinel, November 2, 1978, B-3A–B-4A.
71 Jovida Joylette, “An Over-Promoted, Over-Done Spectacle,” Philadelphia Tribune,
November 3, 1978, 6.
72 Nelson George, “‘The Wiz’ Good and Bad,” New York Amsterdam News, November 4,
1978, D3.
72 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
Figure 2. Ad for The Wiz in Amsterdam News using praise from mainstream, white-focused media
outlets (Amsterdam News, 1978).
functioned as a Black public sphere and their reviews were intended to be
important for and to potential Black viewers. In addition, they show that Black
press reviews had the power to drive Black consumption of The Wiz, which
could result in Hollywood making more Black-cast films with high budgets
and production values (see Figure 2).
Although white moviegoers were important to the financial success of The Wiz as
a Black blockbuster, the mainstream white press mostly did not review The Wiz
favorably. Three broad themes emerge with respect to mainstream criticism of
the film. First, an affective connection to Judy Garland as Dorothy seemed all
but inescapable for many white reviewers, resulting in a problem of misplaced
referents. While it is true that The Wiz conjures Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of
Oz, primarily because they are both film adaptations of the same work, that association prevented some white reviewers from regarding The Wiz as a standalone
text and judging it on its own merits. Many white reviewers questioned whether
The Wiz would be palatable to white viewers given that the 1939 film remained
so indelibly marked on their hearts. To many white reviewers, and perhaps some
white spectators, The Wiz was considered an urban update to Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, not an adaptation of the Broadway musical. As such, The Wiz seemed
like a major departure from a beloved classic.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, although The Wiz attempted to
make spectators forget that it was a Black blockbuster through its casting of
crossover stars like Ross and Jackson, its Blackness was indelibly marked on
the film. Consequently, white film reviewers working at mainstream newspapers sought to ghettoize The Wiz. The Wiz did not resemble the Blaxploitation
fare of the early 1970s (particularly given its stars and budget), yet its Blackness provided a lens through which white reviewers could activate a racialized media reception of the film. That is, the The Wiz’s crossover stars, Black
cast, and blockbuster production collided with the cinematic language white
reviewers had become accustomed to using when reviewing Black-cast films,
most of which were Blaxploitation films.
Third, reviewers were also concerned with questioning whether the
film could recoup its budget. As such, white film reviewers’ racialized media
reception shapes their “frames of reference” for the film. As Robert Allen and
Douglas Gomery argue, studying journalistic film criticism “tends to establish
the critical vocabulary and frames of reference used not only by reviewers, but
by film audiences as well.”73 These frames of reference are particularly important “when critics are confronted with a film that is ‘different,’ that doesn’t fit
neatly into the customary frames of reference of standard critical discourse.”74
The Wiz presented white film critics with such a film. As the reviews from the
mainstream press reveal, white critics broadly disliked The Wiz but tied themselves in knots trying to articulate reasons for their dislike that could not be
construed as racialized media reception.
73 Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery, Film History: Theory and Practice, 1st ed. (New
York: Knopf, 1985), 90.
74 Allen and Gomery, 90.
74 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
A short piece in New York magazine clearly articulated the stakes for the
cinematic version of The Wiz: “All it has to do is the following: (1) surpass the
[L. Frank Baum] book; (2) surpass the musical; and (3) surpass Judy Garland’s
The Wizard of Oz.”75 On one hand, the unnamed writer’s assessment of what The
Wiz needed to do to be deemed successful is accurate. On the other hand, the
articulated metrics for The Wiz’s success are illuminating because they highlight
Black-cast films’ expectation to financially over-perform because of an industrial forgetting that Black-cast films can do well at the box office—after all, the
box office successes of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft occurred less
than a decade prior to The Wiz. However, the review illuminates the workings of
racialized media reception by demonstrating how mainstream press inextricably
linked The Wiz and The Wizard of Oz. In this way, then, white reviewers’ frames
of reference were clearly expressed when watching and writing about The Wiz.
Sensing this semiotic disconnection, Lumet, in a Soho Weekly interview, rhetorically asks, “Did you ever read the reviews of the original picture? It got the
shit kicked out of it. Judy got the worst reviews of her life.”76 Lumet’s defensive
stance is understandable, given that most mainstream media outlets eviscerated
The Wiz for failing to replicate the 1939 version of the story.
In his Time magazine review of The Wiz, titled “Nowhere Over the Rainbow,” John Skow admonishes the film for failing to be as fantastical as it
should have been. Straining to ensure that his negative review is not misunderstood as one that longs for Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, he situates his
dislike of The Wiz in a rebuke of the “bankable star” turn in Hollywood. Essentially, Skow hates The Wiz because he reads Diana Ross’s casting as endemic of
Hollywood’s turn toward casting stars as budgets got larger in the late 1970s
and early 1980s. He argues, “Thus, when you want to cast a black version of
The Wizard of Oz, you do not hold an audition for beautiful teen-age black girls
who can sing like crazy, though the possibilities of such an audition stagger
the imagination. You sign up Diana Ross, who is beautiful and sings like crazy,
and is known to bankers from a career dating back to the early ’60s.”77
However, in trying to ensure that he is not understood as disliking the
film because it is not The Wizard of Oz, Skow inadvertently exposes that his
review is, in fact, tethered to racialized media reception. Not only does he
call The Wiz a “black version of The Wizard of Oz,” but in his three-column
review of the film, he does not actually begin a review of the film until the
third column. In the first two columns, he mentions The Wizard of Oz twice,
mostly to disavow any connections to The Wizard of Oz. After all those column
inches spent asserting that The Wiz exists as a film in its own right, Skow can
then only muster a thin critique of Lumet’s film, noting that, “A huge budget
corrupts hugely. By this time the viewer has realized that he can’t win, he can’t
break even, and he must get out of the theater.”78 In sum, Skow never quite
tells his viewers why the film is as bad as he believes it to be, only that it is not
The Wizard of Oz.
75 “Made in New York,” New York, September 18, 1978, 79.
76 Michael Musto, “Sidley Lumet: The Wiz Is Big Biz,” Soho Weekly, November 30, 1978, 14.
77 John Skow, “Nowhere Over the Rainbow,” Time, October 30, 1978, 118.
78 Skow, 118.
In this way, Skow’s review suffered from a sense of misplaced referents,
as did many other white reviewers’ critiques of the film. The New York Post’s
Archer Winsten suggests that The Wiz would not ultimately prove successful,
“except with specially interested audiences.”79 Here “specially interested
audiences” is code for Black viewers. While Winsten praises the film’s set
design (by white designer Tony Walton) and the yellow brick road, he tacitly
suggests that the film is not one that appeals to him and will not appeal to
other white viewers, signaling that The Wiz exists outside white cinematic
taste cultures. Additionally, the New York’s David Denby spends the first
paragraph of his review discussing The Wizard of Oz and its cultural status as
a classic film, then suggests that “those of us trying to play fair with The Wiz
will have to hold our sentiment in check.” Nevertheless, he concedes, the
film “is taking a hell of a risk in going up against one of the best-loved films
ever made.”80 Lastly, Joseph Gelmis, writing for Newsday, suggests that despite
its budget, “The Wiz couldn’t buy the ageless pop tunes, soul, wit or magic
of the 1939 Judy Garland film classic.”81 It seems that, as the Scarecrow sings
within the film, The Wiz “Can’t Win” when it comes to mainstream press
who, try as they might, cannot shake the phantom of The Wizard of Oz as the
referent by which to judge The Wiz.
Gary Arnold’s Washington Post review crystallizes how white critics minimized The Wiz’s commercial appeal because of their prejudices, including
their belief that white moviegoers would be reluctant “to attend a movie with
an all-black cast, even one including [Diana] Ross, [Lena] Horne, Richard
Pryor, Michael Jackson and Nipsey Russell.” Noting a widespread “prejudice
against reinterpreting the classic The Wizard of Oz,” Arnold illuminates the tension between the notions that The Wiz somehow Blackens the historical legacy
of a beloved white classic and that white viewers tend to be less likely to see
movies with a majority of Black bodies on the screen while nevertheless asserting that the film is quite good and should be seen.82 This ghettoization of The
Wiz continues in Charles Champlin’s Los Angeles Times review. After initially
mentioning the budget for the film and naming its white director, Champlin
moves on to the dichotomy between the mainstream appeal of “the whitest of
fantasies, The Wizard of Oz” and the “contemporary urban black experience”
depicted in The Wiz.
83 This instance of racialized media reception positions
The Wiz as a kind of Black people’s version of the more culturally acceptable
The Wizard of Oz. If there is any doubt about Champlin’s, and by extension the
Los Angeles Times’, expectations for the film’s commercial reception, Champlin
explicitly states that the producers of the film have to “hope for a crossover
audience” in order for its production costs to be recouped, although he
believes that is unlikely.84
79 Archer Winsten, “Sets Walk Away with ‘The Wiz,’” New York Post, October 24, 1978, 69.
80 David Denby, “Like a Ton of Yellow Bricks,” New York, November 6, 1978, 125.
81 Joseph Gelmis, “‘The Wiz’ Misses,” Newsday, October 27, 1978, Sc MC 320, box 5, folder
11, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The Wiz Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.
82 Gary Arnold, “The Wiz: A Musical Powerhouse That Sets the Spirit Soaring,” Washington
Post, October 27, 1978.
83 Charles Champlin, “‘The Wiz’ Moves to Film,” Los Angeles Times, October 26, 1978, E1.
84 Champlin, E1.
76 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
Only the New Yorker engages in a deeper discussion of The Wiz. In her
five-page review of the film, Pauline Kael seems unsure how to understand
the film. At one point, she admonishes the film for not being Black enough,
noting the failure of the writers to have “zingers from black thinkers or jazz
musicians” inscribed on the bits of paper that the Scarecrow pulls out of his
stuffing and reads aloud.85 However, she also admits that she enjoyed the
essentialized notion of cinematic Blackness she finds in Michael Jackson’s
Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell’s Tinman, and Ted Ross’s Lion because they “give
their roles black show-biz equivalents of the musical-comedy and burlesque
styles” and represent a kind of Blackness that “white viewers can easily
accept.”86 Nevertheless, like many of the other reviews in mainstream publications, Kael doubts the commercial viability of The Wiz. In addition to her
countless reminders that the film is populated with Black bodies and is decidedly not the Garland version of The Wizard of Oz, she points to a historical failure of musical films when she asserts that “only a half dozen or so musicals . . .
have ever brought in as much money as The Wiz cost.”87
Despite her reservations, Kael wants the film to be “Blacker,” suggesting
that the “lion certainly could have used an Afro” and Lena Horne’s Glinda
should have been made “a sexy Good Witch” while also asking for “cheerful
numbers and a good spirit” from the film.88 Problematically, then, her assessment of The Wiz relies on the stereotypes of Black people that circulated (and
in many ways continue to circulate) within the white cinematic imagination.
For Kael, if a Black performer’s hair in the 1970s is not styled in an Afro, it is
not Black. Nor should a Black woman as beautiful (and light-skinned) as Lena
Horne fail to trade on her beauty in the way that a good Jezebel is supposed to
do, revealing her racialized media reception. Kael cannot comprehend that a
Black woman could believably “be a kindergarten teacher in Harlem [who] is
implacably virtuous . . . too shy to go out with men . . . [and] wears a demure
high-necked pale-lavender blouse.”89 She implicitly demands that Black people in film conform to her narrow vision of authentic Blackness. Thus, The
Wiz was simultaneously positioned in mainstream press as too Black for white
audiences and yet not Black enough.
Certainly not all of the mainstream reviews for The Wiz panned the film.
Rex Reed’s positive New York Daily News review was reprinted as an advertisement that ran in newspapers across the country. In the review, Reed praised
The Wiz, noting, “Visually, ‘The Wiz’ outdoes everything I’ve seen on the
screen in decades.”90 Gesturing toward the efficacy of positive film reviews on
viewer reception practices, Universal’s publicity department exploited Reed’s
exclamation that “Fabulous is the word for ‘The Wiz’ . . . a colossal entertainment. Everyone is just plain perfect” in both Black and mainstream newspa85 The quotes come from white thinkers and artists including William Shakespeare and
Francis Bacon. Pauline Kael, “Saint Dorothy,” New Yorker, October 13, 1978, 138.
86 Kael, 141–142; Kael also asserts that Russell has built a career as an “inoffensive black
entertainer [who performed] in front of white audiences.”
87 Kael, 138.
88 Kael, 142–143.
89 Kael, 138.
90 Rex Reed, “Fabulous Is the Word for ‘The Wiz,’” New York Post, October 25, 1978, 1.
pers across the country to bolster the film’s chances of achieving box office
success.91 However, try as they might, most mainstream critics could not review
the film without tethering it to the 1939 cinematic adaptation of The Wizard of
Oz. It is The Wiz’s status as a Black-cast blockbuster that structures the industrial and mainstream critical responses to the film (see Figure 3).
Released in the wake of the Black Civil Rights Movement, The Wiz exists in the
shadow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that people not be judged
by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. However, The
Wiz was ultimately judged not necessarily on its content but largely on its
91 “The Big New Hit in Town!,” New York Amsterdam News, November 11, 1978, D4.
Figure 3. Rex Reed’s positive review of The Wiz was reprinted as an ad in both mainstream and Black
press newspapers across the country to mitigate negative reviews of the film (New York Post, 1978).
78 JCMS 60.2 • WINTER 2021
Blackness. Mainstream and Black publications could not get past the film’s
Blackness, a Blackness that was often placed within a monolithic and stereotypical framework that simultaneously resulted in the film’s commercial failure
and contributed to an impulse to see Black bodies in well-financed studio
films. Film reviews of The Wiz in Black press and mainstream press reveal the
post–civil rights schism in American culture. Many Black people longed for
so-called positive representations that eschewed the scripts of Blackness that
have historically been circulated within media discourse. In that vein, The Wiz
engendered a racialized media reception that was tethered to a sense of civic
pride for many Black reviewers’ assessing The Wiz.
Additionally, the film represented the first time Hollywood invested in a
big budget Black-cast film. After all, The Wiz’s $23 million budget far outstripped Shaft’s $500,000 budget as well as Sparkle’s $1 million budget.92 However, white reviewers exposed their racialized media reception when critiquing
The Wiz because it failed to satisfy their expectations, expectations set by the
Judy Garland version of The Wizard of Oz. Although one could argue that these
reviewers were reacting to aesthetic shortcomings in Lumet’s film, the amount
of time they spent discussing The Wizard of Oz reveals their white frames of
reference and the thus racialized media reception of The Wiz. Ultimately,
The Wiz did not necessarily fail to recoup its production budget in its initial
theatrical run because it was bad—many “bad” films realize profits at the
box office—but because of the way its distribution model combined with its
attendant white racialized media reception. The reviews of The Wiz illuminate
how critical discourse around the film shaped the barriers and barometers of
success for the film even before it was viewed by audiences.
Importantly, The Wiz was considered not just a failure but a Black failure.
The burden of representation was too great for The Wiz as an expensively
produced Black-cast blockbuster. The reviews in the Black press reveal that
Black critics understood the industrial importance of The Wiz and encouraged Black people to see the film to show Hollywood the power of the Black
dollar. And indeed, Black viewers showed up in great numbers to consume
The Wiz. The film was bound to a demonstration of Black civic pride and
desire for film content that did not traffic in “negative” images of Blackness.
These discursive residues haunt Black-cast film contemporarily. As I have
argued elsewhere, many Black people feel an obligation to attend Black-cast
films in order to demonstrate their hunger to see Black bodies on the silver
screen, even when they might hate the film or its producer (e.g., the films
of Tyler Perry).93 Black critics were keenly aware of the precariousness of
Black media output within Hollywood. Despite the existence of what Timothy Havens calls “industry lore”—a set of beliefs about Black media texts’
marketplace performance—Black critics remained aware of how Blackness
functioned as usable and expungable within Hollywood. Consequently, they
rallied around The Wiz as a harbinger of Black possibility within the pages of
their respective publications.94
92 “Black Market,” 57.
93 Martin, “Why All the Hate?,” 179.
94 Timothy J. Havens, Black Television Travels: African American Media around the Globe
(New York: New York University Press, 2013), 4.
The fact is, by the end of the 1970s, Hollywood was simply done with
Black-cast films and audiences. Despite Black press reviewers’ praise for the
film and mainstream reviewers’ general evisceration of it, The Wiz provided
Hollywood with a convenient rationale for moving away from Black-cast film
production. The Wiz was not simply a box office failure, then; it was a Black
failure that could be mapped onto all Black-cast films. I am not suggesting
that Hollywood needed a reason to disengage from Black-cast films; rather,
The Wiz provided an industrial shield that could serve as a ready-made case
study to deflect charges of racist practices within the industry. In fact, it would
take Hollywood ten years to greenlight another big budget Black-cast film:
Coming to America. Focusing on The Wiz’s US box office figures, rather than its
international haul or ancillary revenue (which includes syndication deals and
soundtrack sales), Hollywood was about to paint The Wiz as a failure and claim
that it no longer made sense to produce more Black-cast films or musicals
because the audience was not there for such output. In the final analysis, like
the Scarecrow’s song from the film, The Wiz couldn’t win.
The author wishes to thank Colin Burnett, Sharon Shahaf, Samantha N. Sheppard,
and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback on this article. This
research was supported by a New York Public Library Short-Term Research Fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Alfred L. Martin, Jr. is an assistant professor of media studies in the Department
of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. He is author of The Generic
Closet: Black Gayness and the Black-Cast Sitcom (Indiana University Press, 2021).
Copyright of JCMS: Journal of Cinema & Media Studies is the property of Society of Cinema
& Media Studies and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a
listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print,
download, or email articles for individual use.

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