Dec 4, 2015

The Wiz: Gay Manhattan in the 1970s

Dorothy is a 24-year old kindergarten teacher  living with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in 1978 Harlem, New York.  They were happy to raise her, but now they're dropping broad hints: "You're grown up, practically middle aged.  Move out!"

But Dorothy is paralyzed by fear.  She's never been south of 125th Street, which means that she's never been to the Museum of Modern Art, about a mile away, or the Empire State Building, or to the gay village of Chelsea.  Like everyone in America in the 1970s, she has heard horrible things about Manhattan: skyrocketing crime, economic decline, a failing infrastructure.  It's a cesspool of corruption, misery, and perversion.  There are gay people there.

Then she follows her dog Toto out into a snowstorm, and gets lost in Manhattan -- which she calls Oz.

She encounters raw racism -- taxis invariably refuse to take her fare -- and  many of the urban evils that 1970s critics bemoaned: graffiti, prostitutes, gangs, drugs, gay people.

But she still visits sites that are both beautiful and powerful -- the New York Public Library, the World Trade Center, Cony Island, and the glittering emerald fantasy of Park Avenue.

She makes more friends than she ever had before in her life: a Tin Man, a Scarecrow (played by Michael Jackson), a Lion.

And she is surrounded by beefcake.  Cute "numbers runners."  Munckins frozen in graffiti.  Sweat-shop workers who escape their masks and uniforms to reveal muscular bodies, naked except for jockstraps. Many, if not most, are gay-coded.

In the end she defeats the evil Evilene, debunks the shyster Wizard, and goes back home to Harlem.

But she is no longer afraid. She knows now that for all its dangers, squalor, and decay, Manhattan is a beautiful, magical place, where you can find friends, where difference is accepted, where you can be free to be who you are.  Where being gay is ok.

The Wiz is not a great movie.  It's way too long, the acting is awful, and paralyzing fear is not the best attribute for a heroine -- Dorothy has none of the resourcefulness of her counterpart in the Baum books, none of the courage of the Judy Garland version. One gets the impression that she should be talking to a therapist rather than going on a heroic quest.

But I liked the fantasy versions of New York landmarks, the soul-inspired score, the black/urban adaption of  the all-white Oz of Frank L. Baum and Judy Garland.  The utter-lack of hetero-romance. The beefcake.

And the gay symbolism.

When I saw The Wiz in the fall of 1978, during my freshman year in college, I had visited 17 U.S. states and 5 foreign countries, but still, my world felt as constrained as Dorothy's.  Faced with constant heterosexist pronouncements about my future wife and kids, I felt, like Michael Jackson's Scarecrow, that:

You can't win, you can't break even
And you can't get out of the game

The Wiz suggested that home might be a "good place" after all.  All you needed was a copy of the Gayellow Pages.

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