Believe it or not, it was 41 years ago that Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the rest of The Wiz’s gang eased on down the road in that 1978 feature. Later that fall, movie audiences learned to believe a man can fly in Superman: The Movie.
I saw both films within weeks of each other. I was 13 years old. That 1978 “double feature” may have very literally saved my life.
Featuring a cast that included Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor The Wiz featured elaborate sets, stellar vocal performances, and an unrelenting score by Quincy Jones. While the film underperformed at the box office and with critics, it amassed a cult following over the years and is now considered a classic by a new generation of viewers.
Superman: The Movie, featuring Academy Award-winning special effects, a rousing score, and an iconic performance by Christopher Reeve was a smash, spawning three sequels and one spin-off. Director Richard Donner eschewed the camp that had been a hallmark of the 1960s Batman TV series, opting to take the Man Of Steel very seriously.
I took Superman very seriously, too. I’d cherished my Superman and Action comics collections for as long as I could remember. But it took a trip to Oz to get me there.
I was at an emotional low point, having been battered by a tumultuous early childhood. I was not feeling sufficiently cared for by well-meaning parents who battled their own demons and were ill-prepared to manage their children’s emotional needs. My father was physically abusive to my mother, and my older brother had just left home for college, leaving me and my two younger sisters in a home from which we should have been removed. Today, we would be.
Somewhere in the recesses of my young brain, I decided that my parents’ marital problems were my fault. If I weren’t there, I surmised, the problems of that household would fade away. During the weeks that preceded my family’s trip to the theatre to see The Wiz, I had been thinking about ending my life via my latchkey kid status and the contents of a fairly well stocked, mirrored medicine cabinet.
In metro Detroit’s darkened Quo Vadis movie theatre one November afternoon, Ross’ Dorothy literally sung me back from my own emotional ledge. In just a couple of minutes of a single song, she convinced me that I, too, might be able to “Be A Lion.”
Returning to our family’s modest three bedroom ranch, I knew it may never be home, but I also knew that I had the brains, courage, and heart to manage life’s curve balls and that the answer to life’s problems couldn’t be found at the bottom of someone else’s prescription drug vial.
The next month, some saw Superman: The Movie as just a comic book flick, but I saw a whole lot more. When Superman caught Lois from her fall from atop The Daily Planet building, he caught me, too, by giving a troubled 13 year old something — someone — to believe in.
Thanks to well over 100 viewings dating back to VHS, I can quote most of Superman: The Movie verbatim. From a Superman tattoo on my left shoulder to an office that resembles a Fortress of Solitude annex, I am surrounded by daily reminders of the glory of stepping into your own truth and tapping into the power within.
Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman didn’t just make me believe a man could fly. He helped me believe a boy could live.
In the fall of 1978, I went from Detroit to Oz to Metropolis and back again. And I’ve been flying ever since.
If you are thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. SuicidePreventionLifeline.org
Come back to this blog for more in a series of articles celebrating The Wiz and Superman: The Movie, including EXCLUSIVE interviews with some of the creators of the two iconic films.
Connect with Sacramento-based freelance writer Michael P Coleman at michaelpcoleman.com, follow him on IG or Twitter at @ColemanMichaelP, or just walk up and say “hi” to the black guy in the Superman shirt.