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The Cast Of 'The Wiz Live!' Is Bringing The Old School To The New School

Here's what the cast of 'The Wiz Live!' had to say about the upcoming show. 

Tucked away in a parking lot in Bethpage, Long Island on this brisk fall morning, Grumman Studios is bustling with journalists, make-up artists, publicists and everyone in between. We’re all here for The Wiz Live!’s  press junket, which airs on Thursday, December 3 at 8pm on NBC. The Live! show is a remake of the 1975 version of the famed Broadway Play The Wizard of Oz, titled The Wiz. In the Playbill remake, Stephanie Mills starred as Dorothy, and after that, a 1978 film adaption of the play came out with a star-studded African-American cast featuring Diana Ross (Dorothy), Michael Jackson (Scarecrow) and Richard Pryor (The Wiz).

Today, The Wiz Live! is taking cues from some of Generation Y’s contributions to African-American urban culture; still, not forgetting to pay homage to those who paved the way before them. Ne-Yo—sporting his signature fedora, paired with a cream sweater— (Tinman), Queen Latifah (The Wiz), Mary J Blige, (Evillene, Wicked Witch of the West), newcomer Shanice Williams (Dorothy) and veteran Stephanie Mills (Aunt Em), among others are floating around the room table-to-table meeting the press, and making their way down the Yellow Carpet on the other side of the venue for on-camera interviews.

You might find it interesting that a woman was casted as The Wiz. But for executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan casting Queen was a no brainer. “I just have to tell this one thing that fascinated us…the first call we always make on a project is to Queen Latifah,” Zadan explains, perched on a stage during a panel discussion with the creative team of the production. “That's always the first call. As evidenced we did Chicago with her, we did Hairspray, we did Steel Magnolias, and now this.” Director Kenny Leon echoes these sentiments expressing how for him, The Wiz's phenotype or sex wasn’t a concern. “I wasn't thinking about gender. I said Queen Latifah. The Wiz can be anything; can do anything. They said we'd love Queen Latifah. And we went after her right away,” he adds.

It might have been hard to believe when she first got the call, but now Queen Latifah feels right at home jumping into character as The Wiz. She credits her outlandish avant-garde costume for doing the trick. “I love it when I put it on, it takes me there,” she gushes. “My posture and my attitude changes. I start feeling a little bossier. I just want to tell somebody to do something that they don’t even deserve to be told to do. Like I got ignorance coming on from my pores.”

Besides its captivating costumes and magical story line, it’s safe to say that for most of the cast The Wiz means something a lot deeper. In hindsight, it was one of the first times African Americans saw themselves in a major Broadway production, which then featured some of the greatest entertainers of our time the movie version. “The Wiz means so much to me,” professes Mary J Blige. “It changed my life, as a kid in the inner cities it’s hard to believe so when you see Michael Jackson and Diana Ross who are the untouchable entertainers of our time—it kind of makes you believe you can do it too because it’s Michael Jackson—so it just gave me hope; it inspired me; it encouraged me. So to be apart of something that can do the same thing for another generation I couldn’t ask for more in my life.”

It was important for Meron and Zadan to authentically encompass black culture from its dance to its music. They made it their mission to have creatives like famed choreographer Fatima Robinson and stellar music producer Harvey Mason Jr. as apart of their team. Expect to see a mix of old and contemporary dance moves paired with Cirque du Soleil infused sets. In the mix of all this, Robinson says she stayed true to her hip-hop roots. “I always call myself a hip-hop choreographer at heart, although I do different styles of dance,” she notes. ”We're hitting the Quan, we're hitting the nae-nae. We have every fun street dance that's out there, we've incorporated in the choreography. And it's so much fun.”

Musically, producers Stephen Oremus and Mason Jr. wanted to infuse both old and new influences in the show.“We were trying to pay respects to the era that it was written in but understand that kids are going to watch this show.,” Oremus says. “Let’s make the original but make it sound more contemporary or traditional rather.” Besides songs like “Ease on Down the Road,” you’ll hear a new one titled, “We Got It,” created by Ne-Yo and the production team.“I kind of had to rake off the concept of writing for The Wiz,” Ne-Yo says. “You take that away and you just write a song, and it’s been a ride for me to watch where the song started from to where it is now. It’s literally not a song anymore it’s a moment.”

One special moment in particular is the return of Stephanie Mills to the stage as Aunt Em. She says the whole process for her has been an emotional one filled with gratitude since she played Dorothy 40 years ago. As for her protégé on set newcomer Shanice Williams, Mills says she gives her affection every step of the way. “I give her love [because] she got this,” says Mills of Shanice. “She really has this. She is going to be a super duper star. “

When Williams is asked what she has learned so far in this process she offers this: “I’ve learned a lot about myself definitely. You have to be focused all the time,” she says."It’s all about the work. And being with this cast they teach me so much. Living in the moment in the work process. Sometimes I just watch them."

The Wiz Live!’ airs on Thursday, December 3 at 8pm only on NBC.

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Issa Rae And Kumail Nanjiani Talk Their Black And Brown Dynamic In 'The Lovebirds'

As our latest op-ed points out, black romance films are having a moment, and The Lovebirds is adding a comedic twist to the matter. Ahead of the MRC/Paramount Pictures' premiere on streaming platform Netflix, VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle sat down with the film's lead actors Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani to discuss the refreshing black and brown dynamic between their characters.

"I think it was just more exciting to me [to take part in a different romantic dynamic]. It was just that, and I didn't realize until later," said Rae. "Obviously with working with Kumail, it just like 'Oh, I haven't seen an on-screen pairing like this' and [I] was excited to play with him cosmetically. But yes, it's exciting to see a new and fresh dynamic in movies like this."

"When you see a portrayal of Pakistanis in American pop culture, generally, you're seeing certain lanes. You don't see us being light or funny or fun that often," said Nanjiani. "My family is very, very funny. My friends are very funny, so it wasn't even an attempt to try and show that [brown characters can be portrayed differently]. I just wanted to show how the people I know are. My mom and my dad are some of the funniest people I've ever met."

Watch the full interview above. The Lovebirds is streaming on Netflix now.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in 'The Photograph'.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Opinion: Black Romance Films Are Having A Moment

It began with a kiss. Just one decade after the birth of cinema, vaudeville actors and dancers Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle gleefully embraced one another on film. They held hands and locked lips, giving the world its very first image of Black romance and intimacy on-screen. 1898's Something Good-Negro Kiss proved that love and affection was at the center of Black life. More than that, intimacy has always been essential to the survival of our people. Now, some 120 plus years later— cinema has finally reached the point where it has expanded to allow complex images of Black love, across time periods, between same-sex couples, and more recently, without being bogged down in trauma and pain.

Before Good-Negro Kiss was discovered in 2018, one of the earliest versions of Black romance in cinema was 1954's Carmen Jones starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. Filmed in sweeping cinemascope, Carmen Jones follows a soldier named Joe (Belafonte) who gets so enamored with Carmen (Dandridge) that he becomes obsessive, even going AWOL to be with her. Though the film is sexy, and the tension between the actors is palpable — the romance in Carmen Jones is stilted to make white audiences comfortable. Hollywood was only willing to see Black intimacy through the lens of a renowned musical, wrapped in what ultimately becomes a tragedy. By the end of the film, Joe murders Carmen out of obsession and jealousy. Despite Belafonte and Dandridge's determination to showcase their sensuality, the material only allowed them to go so far. This sort of restraint would become the blueprint for generations of Black romance films.

Considering the utter chaos of the 1960s, it's a wonder that 1964's Nothing But A Man was ever made. A decade after Carmen Jones, Hollywood felt it was time to roll the dice on something different. Starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln as Duff Anderson, a railroad worker, and Josie Dawson, a Birmingham school teacher, respectively, Nothing But A Man isn't packaged for white audiences like the musicals of the previous decades. However, the burdens and pains of the couple's relationship, namely Duff's flakiness about commitment and the rage he feels as a Black man living in the South, fall on Josie's shoulders. Moving into the 1970s with films like Claudine and Mahogany, and certainly, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Black romance on-screen would either be shrouded in comedic relief, or the relationships became the sole burden of the Black woman to bear. Often, both tropes were present.

Still, Black romance stories were always evolving. The 1980s sparked something new for Black sensuality in the movies. Though these were still heteronormative depictions, (aside from 1984's The Color Purple), films made significant steps forward in terms of diverse images of Black people. However, they still held on to sexist ideals. 1986's She's Gotta Have It used a Black woman's rape as a form of character development while 1988's Coming to America — billed as a comedy, rewarded its protagonist for lying to his love interest. This would become the formula for the many Black romance movies that came to fruition in the 1990s. Cheating, lies, abandonment, lack of accountability, and trauma are all very present in some of our most beloved films. Poetic Justice, Love Jones, Jason's Lyric, The Best Man, and Love & Basketball, all have some form of struggle love embedded within the narrative — typically leaving Black women wielding the shorter end of the stick.

Poetic Justice is riddled in misogyny, The Best Man has a serial cheater as a leading man, and in Love Jones, the lack of communication and accountability from both partners is dizzying. Moreover, women are often asked to overlook cheating, lying, manipulation, or being friend-zoned to present themselves as worthy of their male partner by the film's conclusion. Yet, in our quest to connect and see brown bodies sensually and romantically in cinema, we hold these films close to our hearts, overlooking many of the toxic traits of the characters.

Despite the mega success of Black films in the 1990s— following the debut of Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love & Basketball in 2000, Black stories in cinema, aside from a few here and there, were all but erased in Hollywood. Throughout this near decade-long drought, prolific director Tyler Perry was one of the only voices in the game. However, the quality of Perry's storylines, as well as the portrayal of his female characters, have proven to be problematic. These characters are often emotionally broken, angry, and at times unhinged. If and when they do find love in movies like 2005's Diary of An Angry Black Woman, 2008's The Family That Preys and 2009's I Can Do Bad All By Myself, it's after they suffer some dire consequence or horrific punishment. This was particularly jarring during a time when there were hardly any other mainstream film images of Black people on-screen.

Thankfully, as we pressed forward into the second decade of the 21st century, Black filmmakers, writers, and producers were knocking down doors in Hollywood once again. In 2012, Ava DuVernay stepped onto the scene with her stellar film, Middle of Nowhere. The film follows Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) grappling with the choice to leave her incarcerated husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), to follow her dreams and possibly find new love with a bus driver named Brian (David Oyelowo). Though this was a significant shift in the way Black intimacy, sensuality, and romance was depicted in movies, the real transformation happened in 2016, with Barry Jenkins' Academy Award-winning, Moonlight.

Loosely based on screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney's real life, Moonlight puts the Black male coming-of-age story center stage. However, instead of honing in on the violence and despair of the inner city, like the hood homeboy films of the 1990s — Moonlight focuses on Black love between Black men. First, there is the relationship protagonist Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) has with his father-figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Later, Chiron explores his queer identity with his classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The film is a sumptuous duality of hypermasculinity against lush sensuality. With this film, Jenkins effectively shattered our expectations regarding Black intimacy on-screen, while unraveling why Black love in all of its varied prisms deserves a spotlight in cinema.

Moonlight would pave the way for 2019's Queen & Slim and 2020's The Photograph. Two vastly different films, one— a harrowing dramatic thriller, centering Queen (Joe Turner-Smith ) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) who are forced together by circumstance. A dull Tinder date paves the way for a standoff with a racist police officer who eventually lays dead, prompting our leads to run for their lives.

Penned by Lena Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas — the film is almost an antithesis of what we've seen before when it comes to Black romance in the movies. Instead of the tried and true formula of a meet-cute, conflict, and resolution, Queen & Slim unites a Black man and a Black woman through Black radicalism. They come to lean on one another, inadvertently building a foundation when there is no one else either of them can trust or turn to. The weight of their relationship rests equally on both of their shoulders, as they become each other’s ride or die.

In contrast to Queen & Slim, writer/director Stella Meghie's The Photograph, is a much-deserved presentation of soft Black romance, without the trauma or brutality. The film follows Mae (Issa Rae), an art curator grappling with the death of her estranged mother, and Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) — a journalist who crosses paths with Mae's late mother's work. The film follows the typical romance formula, but the conflict and resolution aren't gut-wrenching or emotionally tumultuous. Mae and Micheal deal with real-life issues without being battered or broken. Both parties —like the lead characters in Queen & Slim, share the weight of their missteps and miscommunication. The Photograph is a recognition of straight-forward Black sensuality and love without the heaviness of Black pain. Despite all of this, the film has garnered mixed reviews. Since there isn’t any toxicity between the main characters or much comedy in The Photograph, it appears foreign to us. As a community, we’ve been conditioned to only recognize Black Love shrouded in chaos. Presently, Black women in particular, are asking Black people to look beyond archaic examples of love that are rooted in sexism, misogynoir, and rigid gender roles. Instead, Meghie presents two grown people who must hold themselves and each other accountable to have a chance at a loving and modern relationship.

Black women are also getting the opportunity to be seen as romantic leading women, in the broader scope of cinema alongside leading men from different cultures. Following the footsteps of the 2006 film Something New, where Sanaa Lathan's leading man was Australian actor Simon Baker, Issa Rae will become a leading lady once more in Netflix's The Lovebirds. The Insecure actress stars as Leilani, opposite Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani. Rae is a woman who is grappling with her strained relationship with her boyfriend, Jibran (Nanjiani). The couple's commitment to one another is hilariously put to the test when they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a chaotic murder mystery.

Black film, and undoubtedly Black romance film, has come a long way since that very first kiss was captured on-screen in 1898. With more women filmmakers at the helm, diverse projects, and the current wave of Black cinema in Hollywood, Black romance movies have the opportunity to give the next generations more nuanced depictions of connection, sensuality, sex, and intimacy. With films like Queen & Slim, Moonlight, The Photograph, and The Lovebirds — we have witnessed Black people from all walks of life and sexualities dive into romantic relationships with love, accountability, and self-awareness, which are truly the ultimate relationship goals.

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Black Thought And Questlove Secure First-Look Deal With Universal

Amir “Questlove” Thompson and Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter landed a three-year first-look deal with Universal. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the founders of the Legendary Roots Crew will create scripted and unscripted content for Universal Television Alternative Studio and Universal TV under the duo's Two One Five Entertainment imprint.

“This deal is very important to us as we've been content producers and storytellers for our entire career,” Questlove said in a statement on Wednesday (May 13). “A significant investment from Universal Television Alternative Studio and Universal Television in our vision allows us to share these stories on a much larger scale. Tarik and I see this as the next chapter to our careers, and we are very involved in the entire process. I'm directing, Tarik is writing and we both are producing.”

The deal extends the Roots decade-long relationship with NBC, first on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night talk show in 2009, and serving as the house band for NBC’s Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, which premiered in 2014. Questlove is also music director for the Tonight Show.

“Many of our initial projects have been music-centric content, and one of our goals is to become the premiere hub for music storytelling — a safe space for these stories to be shared across a variety of platforms,” added Black Thought. “Eventually we will expand outside of music with our stories. However, as we all know, every story has a rhythm and Two One Five Entertainment will harness that rhythm and create well-produced, compelling content.”

Two One Five Entertainment's roster of projects include the AMC docuseries, Hip Hop Songs that Shook America, along with Black Woodstock, chronicling the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The company has also had a hand in the Broadway productions, Black No More and Soul Train the Musical.

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