Michael Strautmanis is a lawyer and the chief engagement officer at the Obama Foundation. He served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations and at one time worked for The Walt Disney Company, where he specialized in corporate citizenship.
Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with lawyer Michael Strautmanis about the movie that changed his life, The Wiz. It’s okay if you’ve never seen the movie. We’re going to give you all the details you’ll need to be singing and dancing along in no time.
[music: “Poppy Girls” by Quincy Jones]
The Wiz is a movie that I had actually never seen until I talked with our guest this week, Michael Strautmanis. It’s a movie that I knew starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and that was kind of it. I had no idea what it was about, aside from being some sort of modern re-telling of the Wizard of Oz story. But watching it was a revelation, not just because of the music, which is fabulous — and you’re going to hear that all throughout this conversation — but also in the way that the movie just takes this story, this familiar story of Dorothy and Toto and the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, and makes it so cool.
[excerpt: The Wiz]
[music: “Main Title (Overture Pt.1)” by Quincy Jones]
The Wiz tells the story of Dorothy, played by Diana Ross, and this time she’s an older version of Dorothy than we see in The Wizard of Oz. She’s a 24-year-old Harlem school teacher and the movie begins with Dorothy’s family home where everyone is celebrating for thanksgiving. Dorothy and her Aunt Em are cleaning up after dinner and her Aunt is teasing Dorothy because she’s never been outside of Harlem, she’s never left the place that she grew up in. And as we see her go outside to take out the trash, Toto runs out in the middle of a very violent storm, and they’re suddenly transported to a faraway place.
[excerpt: The Wiz]
As a movie lover, I’d heard about The Wiz before, but I’d kind of avoided it because I’d always heard that it was a disaster of a movie. I’d heard that it didn’t do well at the box office. I’d heard that it’s kind of a mess and that the songs weren’t good — and all of these things that, once I watched it, are completely untrue. The movie is truly magical. You might think you’re familiar with the original Wizard of Oz story, but you’re going to learn new things about each of these characters and see all of them in a light that I found way more relatable as someone who grew up in a city as opposed to a farm.
[music: “Overture (Pt. 2)” by Quincy Jones]
[excerpt: The Wiz]
When Michael Strautmanis saw The Wiz for the first time at the movie theaters, he was blown away by what he was seeing on screen. As a young black boy growing up in the South Side of Chicago, he’d never watched all of his icons, all of his celebrities on screen in this way, and it was the first time he really felt that he’d been seen.
Ms. Percy: So I want to take you back in time to that key moment of when you first saw The Wiz — which I have to thank you for, because I’ve actually never seen it. And in preparing to interview you, I watched it for the first time.
Mr. Strautmanis: Ah! There you go. You’re welcome.
Ms. Percy: I know. Seriously, thank you.
Mr. Strautmanis: [laughs] What a movie.
Ms. Percy: So think back to the first time that you saw The Wiz, and just how old you were and where you were, who you were with, all these memories that come to mind. And I just want you to reflect on that for ten seconds in silence, and I’m gonna interrupt you when the ten seconds are up.
Mr. Strautmanis: OK.
Ms. Percy: So what memories came to your mind then?
Mr. Strautmanis: I saw The Wiz when I was about 9 or 10 years old. And going to the movies, then, was — it was a big deal. It didn’t happen that often. And so, it was always just an exciting thing just to go to the show. That’s what you call it in the black community in Chicago: You’re “going to the show.” So I remember sitting in that theater and just being completely overwhelmed with, really, everything that I saw. The Wiz, it’s a big movie in that sense.
Ms. Percy: It is ambitious.
Mr. Strautmanis: It’s ambitious. It was expensive. At the time — I didn’t realize that as a ten-year-old, but …
Ms. Percy: I was gonna say — you were a Hollywood movie producer. [laughs]
Mr. Strautmanis: [laughs] Exactly, exactly — “Wow, how’d they get the budget for that?”
But I do remember big songs, big emotions, big stars. Michael Jackson, of all things. I was — and I have to say, the big colors. I remember the colors more than anything — just these vivid splashes of gold and red and green.
There’s even that scene, which I remember so well, where they’re in the Emerald City, and it’s like — there was always this magazine in our home, Ebony magazine told the story of the African-American community. There was one in every home. And it always had a fashion section, called Fashion Fair. And I think that, literally, The Wiz, in that scene in Emerald City, it leapt off the pages of Ebony’s Fashion Fair onto the screen. The lamé jumpsuits …
Ms. Percy: Oh, my God, yeah.
Mr. Strautmanis: Right? And the big afros and the scarves and the heels, and it was just glorious. So that’s really what comes to mind.
[excerpt: The Wiz]
Ms. Percy: Watching it for the first time, I was struck, first of all, with how perfect it begins. It begins with a Thanksgiving dinner, where everyone’s coming together. And what a beautiful way to introduce this whole story. In a lot of ways, it felt a lot more familiar to me than the way The Wizard of Oz actually begins, with Dorothy, the old version …
Mr. Strautmanis: Right — out on the farm. Right.
Ms. Percy: Yeah. This one just felt like home. It feels like you’re establishing who this person is, who this Dorothy is. And you really get a sense of her and this Diana Ross character.
And the other thing that really just blew me away was blackness. Every actor is black. And it’s amazing.
Mr. Strautmanis: Well, I mean, it’s peak blackness. And I know people say that these days. In the era of Black Panther, it’s hard to remember that we’ve been here before. And I was ten, so I wasn’t gonna go see Shaft or Superfly, but I could go see The Wiz. And it’s Motown. It’s Berry Gordy. It’s Michael Jackson. It’s Diana Ross. Every actor, as you said, in that movie is black.
And when I was a kid, and even as I’ve seen the movie over the years, it really is so much about that Thanksgiving dinner that the movie begins with, because it just does feel comfortable. It does feel like home. And it was so much of what life was like, then. That’s what our Thanksgiving dinners were like. Every family member is represented in there. There’s the young kids, the new baby, the old folks playing checkers and arguing with each other.
And that’s that black experience that I remember and that I would never see on TV or in the movies. And so, to go to the movies and just to see yourself and your life reflected on-screen, I just think it happens too rarely; and particularly, then, it happened too rarely for black folks. And so, when it happened, it was big.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, and it’s multi-faceted. I think one of the negative stereotypes — and, I think, that are actually wrong about this movie — is that it’s a disaster. This is what I kept reading in reviews about it. And I don’t know what movie they were watching, because from the very beginning, we’re introduced to Dorothy, actually, as a really lonely schoolteacher who is really searching for her identity. You get a real sense of that in the opening sequence when Diana Ross sings that song by herself in her kitchen, that she feels different from everyone else in her family. And I gotta say, that struck me in a way that it never did watching the original Judy Garland version. I didn’t get a sense of her as this fragile woman.
[music: “Can I Go On” by Diana Ross]
Ms. Percy: This is the final week of This Movie Changed Me’s second season, but we’re already busy producing our next. To stay in touch with us, subscribe to our newsletter at onbeing.org/tmcmletter. You’ll be the first to know when our new season launches.
[music: “You Can’t Win” by Michael Jackson]
Ms. Percy: And there’s something too, as we were talking about earlier, about being seen. I think about, growing up, we used to watch I Love Lucy, and that was our only point of reference, when we moved to this country, for a Hispanic on television was Ricky Ricardo.
Mr. Strautmanis: Right.
Ms. Percy: And we all felt — we’re not Cuban, we’re Colombian, but we all felt like, “Oh, he’s one of us.” [laughs] And I can’t even imagine what it must’ve done for you, as a kid growing up in Chicago, to see these remarkable entertainers who were black, just like you, and had this success. And you could see them on screen. I just wonder if you’re even conscious of how you internalized that as a young kid.
Mr. Strautmanis: Oh, sure. Well, it was pretty straightforward for me. I wanted to be an actor. I was in all the plays. I was kind of always in trouble. And my mom, in particular, saw that sending me into theater and giving me an outlet to perform was a way to take that energy and that desire to be seen and turn it toward something productive. And so for me, it was deeply affirming. It was like, “That’s who I want to be. That’s what I want to do.” And so those movies that are important in your life, you know, they give you a feeling? And for me, this movie just gives me that feeling that I can do anything — that tremendous optimism. I am often accused of not ever even seeing the glass being half-empty. It’s always, “Looks pretty full to me.” [laughs]
Ms. Percy: Which has to have come in handy in working in politics , I have to imagine. [laughs]
Mr. Strautmanis: Yes, that’s exactly right. It definitely keeps you going. But The Wiz really — it speaks to that and that sense of belonging, that sense of identity, that affirmation — and that joy.
[music: “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” by Mabel King]
Ms. Percy: Well, one of my favorite scenes in the movie actually comes toward the end, when the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Tin Man, they’ve all realized that they had everything they needed all along. And Diana Ross is talking to Richard Pryor, who plays the Wiz — I was like, oh, my God — Richard Pryor?
Mr. Strautmanis: I mean, come on …
Ms. Percy: I know. [laughs]
Mr. Strautmanis: … when Richard Pryor — when he — you see his big eyes come up from —
Ms. Percy: Crying — when he’s crying, at the end? It’s like, oh, my God.
Mr. Strautmanis: There’s a lot of crying. Although there’s — I talked about joy and it sparkling — there’s a super amount of crying in The Wiz. The Tin Man makes people well from crying. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: Oh, sure. But he has a really thoughtful sequence with her, where he says to her — because he’s looking at these three characters, the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man, and they’ve been healed in many ways. And so, he’s like, “Can you do something for me?” And she has that great speech where she said that they’ve had what they’ve been searching for in them all along. “I don’t know what’s in you. You’ll have to find that out for yourself. But I do know one thing. You’ll never find it in the safety of this room. I tried that all my life. It doesn’t work. There’s a whole world out there, and you’ll have to begin by letting people see who you really are.” Ugh — that killed me.
Mr. Strautmanis: It really was beautiful. And I also think, there’s something that that whole arc evokes in the black community. There are a lot of folks in my family who I grew up with on the South Side of Chicago, who have never left the South Side of Chicago, because, as we’ve seen in viral videos and on news screens, the world is and can be a really dangerous place. And there’s so much about neighborhoods like Harlem, other places, where there’s such a rich, vibrant African-American community that you just feel safe. I remember, mom said, “You’ve never been south of 125th Street.” And there are people who grow up in the South Side of Chicago and never been downtown, never been to the lakefront. And I think that part of what this movie is saying, and part of what I think they found in the story of The Wizard of Oz and in Dorothy is this sense of, “There’s a bigger world out there, and it needs to see you,” and that there’s more out there for you than what’s around. And, by the way, you can always come home.
Ms. Percy: Exactly.
Mr. Strautmanis: And Aunt Em said that to her: “Me and your uncle, we’re gonna be here for you.”
Ms. Percy: Exactly.
Mr. Strautmanis: And that’s, I think, a really important thing for everyone to know, particularly a little, ten-year-old kid.
Ms. Percy: That’s amazing, Michael. I never thought about the fact that they set this in Harlem, probably to dispel that notion — people were afraid of Harlem at the time. And yet, this is her home.
Mr. Strautmanis: It is. And you can tell that, during parts of it, it’s kind of gritty.
Ms. Percy: It’s definitely urban. You know it’s old-school New York, not current New York.
Mr. Strautmanis: [laughs] Yes, that’s exactly right. And so all of that stuff — it’s real. And it was real to me then; it’s real to me now. And I think it just speaks to both the reality of that, but also, just the talent and the joy. And to see — just the lineup: Nipsey Russell. Michael Jackson. Diana Ross. Richard Pryor. Lena Horne.
Ms. Percy: Lena Horne is Glinda.
Mr. Strautmanis: Lena — [laughs] — Horne.
[excerpt: The Wiz]
Ms. Percy: So how has this movie changed for you as you’ve gotten older? And you just said, you’ve watched it a million times. How has it changed for you every time that you watch it? Do you find yourself getting something new from it as you’ve gotten older?
Mr. Strautmanis: Well, a couple things. I think, one — I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s just — it’s nice to see these great artists showcased and allowed to do their thing. If you think about Nipsey Russell, for example, somebody who obviously had a tremendous career on the stage, in film and TV, and he gets to chew up some scenery. He gets to dance. He gets to do his thing. He gets to “slide some oil.” [laughs] And I can see them really enjoying themselves and giving it their all.
Diana Ross, the ultimate diva — and I say that in the most positive, glorious way — to be able to sing and dance and act and just have this be her movie — and so now I just enjoy these performances and enjoy seeing these great performers be able to express themselves and do their thing.
I think the other thing I see in this movie now is just more of the longing. I didn’t really pick up on that when I was younger. But all these characters are really longing for something and are alone until they find each other. And there are these bits where they find each other, and they either rescue each other or they become companions in some other way. And just that sense of — even when Diana Ross asks Scarecrow to come with her on this journey, she says, “Toto and I could sure use some company.” And you realize, she’s alone in this place, and now she’s found this companion to go on this journey with her. So I really noted that.
Ms. Percy: They’re all longing to be better, only to discover, at the end, that wonderful lesson of, you already had what you needed, with you.
Mr. Strautmanis: Yeah.
[excerpt: The Wiz]
[music: “Home” by Diana Ross]
Ms. Percy: Michael Strautmanis is a lawyer and the Chief Engagement Officer at the Obama Foundation. In addition to being very charming and one of the tallest people I’ve ever met, Michael has served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, and at one time even worked for Walt Disney, where he specialized in corporate citizenship.
Motown Productions and Universal Pictures produced The Wiz, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited to them. The soundtrack is from Motown and MCA Records and was mostly produced by none other than Quincy Jones himself — which explains why the music is pure magic.
[music: “A Brand New Day” by Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne, Mabel King, Thelma Carpenter & Theresa Merritt]
The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. And we also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise. Find those wherever you like to listen, or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.