In just a couple nights there will be a live performance, on NBC, of Motown’s The Wiz. If you’re not familiar with The Wiz, it’s Motown’s version of The Wizard of Oz. All different songs, same plot, all Black cast. The original came out in ’78 with Dorothy played by Diana Ross, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsy Russel as the Tin Man, Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion, Richard Pryor as the The Great And Powerful Wiz, Lena Horne as Glenda the Good Witch, and a few other stars! I grew up watching this movie at my grandparents’ house huddled around the giant wooden tv with my cousins. We sang the songs, tried imitating the dance moves, and felt at home in our brown skin as we watched other brown people be exemplar. This Thursday’s production has me overjoyed and anticipatory.
Again, and as it should be, the entire cast is Black. All the main characters are played by pretty famous people including Queen Latifah, Common, Mary J. Blige, Elijah Kelley, Uzo Aduba, and Amber Riley. The main character, Dorothy, is played by someone unknown, Shanice Williams. The fact that the cast is Black already checks a lot of boxes as far as representation goes. Films with an equal amount of POCs to White people are few and far between, but big productions with exclusively POCs are almost unheard of. Something one step down from this POC representation high is the actual skin tone of Dorothy. She’s dark. And not Hollywood’s version of dark in which the person is racially ambiguous with wavy brown hair and olive skin. By Black people’s standards, Shanice Williams is on the darker end of the spectrum.
Sadly European imperialism has effected the way POC’s (which is most of the world) have thought of skin color. Everywhere in the world and within every race colorism exists. Most of the time lighter skin is considered superior to darker skin, because it’s closer to that of the white invaders who overtook indigenous cultures. With that comes different levels of privilege. People with darker skin are often considered lower class, dirty, dumber, more fit for manual labor, ugly, more primitive than their fellow lighter skinned members of their race. In Hollywood, when a POC is playing a leading protagonist role, they are often lighter in skin color, and preferably with more european facial features. Shanice Williams, while quite beautiful, does not fit Hollywood’s ‘standards of beauty’; she has darker skin, excellent kinky hair, and a wide nose. She’s clearly Black, not ‘maybe she has a white parent’ Black.
So why does her skin tone matter? Because little dark skinned Black girls deserve to see someone who looks like them. It’s not enough for them to see light skinned performers and subliminally be told that they’ll never be beautiful because their skin is too dark. They need to know that their skin tone isn’t a hinderance, but an added beautiful feature they should be proud of. Having a dark skinned Dorothy teaches, reteaches, and reprograms that dark is lovely and talented and good and capable and worthy.
So the next time I talk to a little girl who says she doesn’t like her natural hair or her dark skin or her wide nose or her dark eyes I’ll remind her of Dorothy Gale.