The first time I saw a commercial for The Wiz Live, I barely noticed. I heard something about Queen Latifah and Common and thought maybe it was a new movie. Over the next few weeks, I saw the commercial dozens of times and finally paid attention. I got excited to see it. I’d seen The Wiz in middle school, as it’s practically required viewing for black folks, and hoped this remake would do it justice matching the soulful singing, vibrant sets and good acting of the original.
But as is par for the course, a few days before the premiere, some disgruntled white folks took to Twitter ranting about how having an all-black cast was racist. And equally predictably, Black Twitter took the ill-informed to task, giving them 140-character reads and history lessons explaining why the racist culture of the theatre industry necessitated all-black productions. The tweet that originated all the hoopla has been retweeted or otherwise shared heavily, inspiring countless Facebook rants. I’ve seen dozens of blog posts about it. In fact, it’s become so infamous that the original tweeter updated his profile apologizing for the tweet.
The tweets and posts complaining about the “reverse racism” of a melanin-restricted production were fitting appetizers for the main course: 1,000-word think pieces critiquing the “artistic value” of The Wiz Live, written for white audiences on white media. High from the joy and fellowship of Thursday night’s black family TV night, black people once again took to social media to address white critics of the show, sharing articles prefaced with five paragraphs lambasting the writers for their ignorance of black culture and creative license. And while I usually enjoy a warranted dragging, particularly the kind only Black Twitter can deliver, this time, I’m not here for it.
The Wiz was for us. It was black people performing for a black audience. The language was black. The dances were black. The music was black. The style was black. The production was intended for our gaze, enjoyment, comparison and critiques. I delighted in watching the show with my 7-year-old, indulging in our culture and telling him about the original. Hearing Dorothy refer to the scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion as her “squad” made me snap and blurt out, “Yaaaaaasssssss!” I sang along and vogued with the cast. I liked, commented and shared my friends’ praises, jokes and comparisons to the original. I basked in our moment unapologetically.
So while any show broadcast on one of the major networks with so much publicity and such large audience would expectedly garner much coverage, I am unfazed and uninterested in white media’s opinions about the quality of the show. Quite frankly, their thoughts, likes, dislikes and suggestions are neither required nor desired. As my grandmother used to say, “Everything ain’t for everybody.”
The first prerequisite for any critic’s assessment to be considered valid is expertise of the subject matter. Though I have no illusions that there aren’t white people with broad knowledge of theatre, including black theatre, a mere front-row seat or backstage pass to our shows does not an expert make. The Wiz is as much — probably more — about the black experience as it is about the story, acting and singing. It’s an experience only justified by living it. No amount of schooling, reading or emersion can make a non-black person an expert in the black experience. Therefore, no white person, regardless of their proximity to blackness and black culture, could ever be qualified to assess the value of black art for black people.
The reactions to The Wiz penned by white writers are neither to nor for us. They are intended as a compilation and validation of the criticisms born of watching unapologetic blackness through a white supremacist lens. They are intended to diminish the significance of revolutionary art to white audiences. They are drafted under the guise of purely artistic analysis, ignoring the big black elephant in the room. It is impossible to criticize The Wiz without criticizing the blackness that birthed it.
Petty jabs about how the soundtrack is unmemorable or how the original was itself not worthy are qualitative evaluations valid or invalid based on the reader. White people calling into question the cultural significance of a black project is the quintessential demonstration of passive racism. The audacity is customary yet astonishing, but it is a boldness perfected and sustained by amplification.
Simply, the white collective are perpetual party crashers, constantly invading our spaces doling out irrelevant and unsought advice and opinions. And as with any party crashers, the hosts stop and devote time to not only remove, but to correct the crashers, giving them the attention they require to know that their presence, however unnecessary and unwelcome, was impactful. Instead of completely ignoring the uninvited, we continue to give them a seat at our table, listening to their arguments then crafting careful defenses and rebuttals.
Why should we defend anything to trespassers? Why do we allot a space for intruders to voice their concerns and condemnations? Are those who seek to bash and belittle our work not the very hurdles that made it necessary to develop exclusive spaces in the first place?
I cannot think of a black review of a white film, play or other theatrical production which was amplified by the white masses. White people validate white art, and that is enough. White people decide the “classics” and any challenges to their findings are laughed all before being altogether dismissed. The consideration all but demanded when they critique our works is not reciprocal.
We must accept that our work is not stellar or important based on white acceptance. We cannot continue to map out the reasons we make the style decisions we do. We should not expect our work to be met with the approving gaze of the white masses. We need to be content with ignoring outsider attempts to discredit our projects, instead standing firm in our decisions to display truthfully who and what we are in our work. We have to know that we are enough.
I refuse to lend credence to white examination of black innovation. I do not owe white critics my ear, reply or energy. Their unsolicited reviews will receive no consideration. This is our house. We made the down payment saved up from our labor. We pay the mortgage with our sweat. We signed the deed in our blood. We’ll grow what we want in our front yard and their condemnation and admiration will be of no consequence.