Rainey commands the crowd during a performance of “Weepin’ Women’s Blues”... ... while Smith watches from the sidelines.
... Smith soon joins her on stage and the two sing hand-in-hand ... ... but then Smith steps in front of Rainey to command the attention of the audience. ...

This drag king performance emboldens Smith. With Rainey’s support of her talent and fluid sexuality, Smith soon comes into her own. In the next musical number on screen, Smith joins Rainey on stage in a small theater to perform the song “Weepin’ Woman’s Blues.” At first Rainey holds the crowd’s attention; she stands center stage in a gold dress and headpiece, swaying and singing while the audience claps in time. Smith stands nervously backstage until Rainey gestures for Smith to come join her. Hand in hand, the women sing in tandem, Smith providing the backup to Rainey’s lead. Yet when Smith spots an encouraging face in the crowd, she raises her brows and steps in front of Rainey, stealing the spotlight. Spreading her arms wide, raising her shoulders, and closing her eyes to feel the emotion of the music, Smith finishes the song as a soloist. Her new confidence as well as her throaty, soulful singing voice seduce the crowd. Smith beams as the audience cries “Bessie!”—meanwhile, Rainey glares at her in the background. In the next scene, Rainey admonishes Smith for hogging the spotlight, which pushes Smith to quit the show and launch a solo career.

These scenes demonstrate the power of the queer sisterhood shared between Rainey and Smith, mirroring the sororal relationship between Rees and Latifah off screen. Rainey is a mentor and role model for Smith. While Smith eventually parts ways with Rainey’s musical company, she is only able begin her own career after building the courage and confidence to do so under Rainey’s guidance. Much later in the film, the women reunite to reminisce on their success. Despite their earlier competitiveness, a connection remains between them. Bessie may take creative license when highlighting the friendship between Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith—it is unclear if their relationship is historical fact or an invention of the film.[38] [open endnotes in new window] Yet with this friendship, and with the matter-of-fact portrayal of Bessie Smith’s intimate relationships, Bessie is able to depict the blues women that Davis describes: resilient, independent, and defiant of the institutional and interpersonal homophobia, sexism, and racism they encountered.

Latifah’s labor as star and producer is evident in her performance. In a review of the film, critic Judith Smith positions Latifah as the second auteurof this project. She writes,

“[Latifah] worked on mastering Bessie Smith’s musical range, switching from gospel to blues in the same song, her phrasing, her pronunciation, as well as her extraordinarily assertive and glowing mode of performance.”[39]

An accomplished musical artist, Latifah’s vocal range and charismatic performance help shape the story of the film. In addition to her on screen performance, Latifah’s company Flavor Unit Entertainment produced the film. In an interview with NPR, Latifah shared that Bessie was her passion project for twenty years:

“I'm so thankful that this happened at this time with this woman I'm sitting across from [gestures to director Dee Rees], who had a vision that was something I could apply myself to and sink myself into at this time with this life experience.”[40]

Latifah’s labor in this project is emblematic of the “do-it-yourself” approach typical to marginal production cultures; as Candace Moore suggests, Black lesbian media makers hold “a sense of shared responsibility for the identity representations that make it to screen” and so work together to make the content they want to see in the world because no one else will do it for them.[41]

Latifah similarly has a multi-layered relationship with the character she plays on screen. Bessie’s Bessie Smith acts as an character-surrogate for Latifah; both women find success in musical industries dominated by men, compose lyrics discussing racial and gendered oppression, and (seemingly) express alternative sexualities. In the same interview, Latifah notes,

“I’ve seen so many things in Bessie’s life that really mirrored mine.”[42]

The creation of a character “alter ego” is a common tactic of minority media authorship; as Janet Staiger argues, the alter-ego allows the author to “[take] up a subsidiary character in a text to speak for the author or…[place] a subordinated cultural figure into the lead role.”[43] Through the creation of an alter-ego, Staiger suggests that marginalized media creators can express non-dominant political viewpoints and underrepresented life experiences on screen. In this case, the Bessie Smith character can express aspects of Latifah’s life that she perhaps decides not to disclose to the press.

The complex relationship between Queen Latifah and the character she plays on screen deepens the multiplicity of the authorship of the film. The uncanny connections between director, star, and character in Bessie open up possibilities for considering how Rees and Latifah’s sororal partnership influenced the film. Yet when asked about the similarities between her life and Bessie Smith’s story, Latifah acknowledges experiencing sexism in the music industry but uses coded language to reference her sexuality. She says,

“I'm not going to get too much into the personal, but how to live your life and how to find love, most importantly, and figure out loss. All these things have been things I have experienced, how to try some things and fail.”[44]

As expected, Latifah shies away from identifying with the queerness of the character she plays. Still, her choice to represent and embody Bessie Smith’s bisexuality is bold. In Bessie, Latifah helps create a new addition to Queer Black Cinema. Her commitment to the project demonstrates her commitment to validating Black queer lives, whether or not she speaks of her own sexuality out loud.

A gender-bending wizard:
queering Oz in The Wiz Live!

Queen Latifah continues this project with her participation as the Wiz in NBC’s The Wiz Live!, a live televised adaptation of the Broadway show and film The Wiz (Lumet, 1978). The Wiz Live! stages a queer-inclusive Afrofuturistic fantasy world, a world that Latifah helps build both on screen as a performer and off-screen in promotional interviews. Detailing the production history of The Wiz, I situate The Wiz Live!’s contemporary reemergence and then discuss queer cultural signifiers of the live show, focusing on the performances in the Emerald City and Queen Latifah’s starring role. Latifah’s performance as the Wiz embodies a particular expression of Black queer masculinity. While Latifah’s production company did not produce The Wiz Live!, her starring performance in the titular role and her interviews about the show incorporate references to Black and queer culture into the show.

The Wiz originated as a musical theater adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz infused with African American cultural aesthetics and signifiers. Produced by Ken Harper with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, The Wiz premiered on stage in Baltimore in 1972 and opened at the Majestic Theater on Broadway in 1975.[45] The Wiz went on to win seven Tony Awards, including for Best Musical and Best Director.[46] Popular with both Black and white audiences, The Wiz became attractive to film production companies looking for a crossover hit.[47] Motown Productions acquired the film rights to The Wiz in 1977 and released the film adaptation in collaboration with Universal Studios in 1978, which famously cast superstars Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, and Richard Pryor as the Wiz. The film was a surprising commercial failure, but it became a cult classic.[48] Following its decline in popularity, The Wiz has remained at the margins of Broadway: a short revival of The Wiz ran in 1984, but there have been no Broadway revivals of the show over the last 35 years.

NBC’s televised musical production The Wiz Live! featured a star-studded cast, featuring Queen Latifah in the titular role as the Wiz.

However, The Wiz has had a contemporary popular comeback: following other live televised musicals, NBC chose The Wiz for their 2015 live production. NBC cast newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy, backed up by a star-studded cast including Queen Latifah as the Wiz, Uzo Aduba as Glinda, Mary J. Blige as Evillene, Ne-Yo as the Tin Man, Amber Riley as Addaperle, and David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion. [29] The Wiz Live! premiered on December 3, 2015 and was an astounding commercial success: it received positive reviews from major newspapers,[49] drew over 11.5 million viewers,[50] and was the most live-Tweeted special program to date.[51]

During the airing of the show on December 3, 2015, the Twitter hashtag #thewizlive was flooded with laudatory remarks about representations of Blackness on the show. Bloggers praised the production’s incorporation of Black cultural signifiers. As one blogger put it,

“Considering the level of visual brutality and violence we’ve been subjected to incessantly, it felt amazing to indulge in uninterrupted Black joy for a moment, no matter how brief.”[52]

In 2015, protests erupted across the U.S. in response to the police murders of Black people, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland in particular. Protests escalated after police arrested domestic terrorist Dylan Roof, a young white man, after he murdered Black church goers in South Carolina. The Wiz Live! staged a celebration of Black life and culture, a welcome distraction from the heightened media attention towards the institutional assault on Black life.

The Wiz Live! incorporated Black queer and Afrofuturistic iconography into its celebratory aesthetics. The Wiz has recently been placed within a legacy of Afrofuturism, an aesthetics of Black cultural production that evokes futurist imaginations of fantasy, technology, the digital, and the intergalactic.[53] Afrofuturism incorporates generic elements of fantasy and science fiction to allegorize Black social alienation and envision configurations of Blackness beyond the archetypes offered in mainstream media. Dan Hassler-Forest argues that historical allusions to slavery and abolition in the film version of The Wiz, as well as the use of urban space to evoke a dystopian past and a speculative future fantasy world for Black liberation, firmly place the film within the realm of Afrofuturism.[54]

The Wiz Live! carries on this tradition, inserting references to Black queer culture into its Afrofuturistic utopia. Scenes taking place in the Emerald City are rife with Afrofuturistic queer signifiers. When Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion enter the doors of the Emerald City, the image of a bright green cathedral-like hallway is projected on the LED screen behind the stage. In the hallway, Dorothy and her friends are confronted by a large group of dancers wearing bright green geometric jumpsuits, blazers, sneakers, and visors. As evidenced by their use of angular, symmetrical poses, rigid yet graceful hand, wrist, arm, and leg movements, and fluid floor performances, the dancers are performing vogue.

The practice of vogue in The Wiz Live! is undeniably a reference to queer culture. Vogue is commonly performed by urban Black and Latinx queer and transgender people in the house/ball community, specifically during ball competitions. As Marlon Bailey writes,

“the kin labor undertaken in houses and among the larger membership in the ballroom community sustains the community and adds value to the members' lives.”[55]

As such, vogue performance is symbolic of the practices queer and trans of color individuals undertake to survive in the face of specific forms of oppression and to create and celebrate community relationships. While voguing gained mainstream attention in the early 1990s via Madonna’s “Vogue” video and Jenny Livingston’s documentary about the house/ball community Paris is Burning (1990), and has been featured more recently in VH1’s television show RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-2020) and FX’s Pose (2018-2020),it is still a practice largely associated with low-income urban queer and trans of color communities. In the narrative of The Wiz Live!, the Emerald City is the location of the Wizard of Oz, who can theoretically help grant the wishes of Dorothy and her friends. It makes sense then that voguing would appear in the only “urban” environment in The Wiz Live!, since it began as a dance form within urban queer communities. During the scene, the dancers on stage shout out terms that also originated with the house/ball community—“Work!”, “Slay!”, “Fierce!”—as if they are performing and judging one another in a ball competition. The Wiz Live! draws on this symbolism of vogue to create a fantasy world that includes the cultural practices of queer and trans people of color in its utopian imagination.

This becomes more apparent when Dorothy and friends meet the Wiz in the next scene. Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man walk into the Wiz’s chambers, which features a variety of Afrofuturistic iconography: a larger-than-life dark green mask sculpture, a mechanical crest featuring cogs, wheels, and Fritz Langian building cut-outs, and smaller silver face masks hung from the ceiling and the walls. As the group explores the chamber, the larger mask sculpture comes to life and fire and sparks shoot out from the ground. The Wiz appears in the middle of the stage: while traditionally played by a male actor, in this production Queen Latifah plays the Wiz.

Latifah’s presence and performance here embodies what Jack Halberstam has called “female masculinity.”[56] Her performance offers another queer moment in the show. Latifah enters the stage, singing “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” while wearing a bright green pantsuit and a cape, a white pompadour, and green contouring make up. She struts around the stage conjuring up fire and lightning in an attempt to convey her power to Dorothy and her friends. Latifah furrows her brow and sneers, intimidating her visitors as she belts the song. Her braggadocio creates a genderbending performance: Dorothy refers to the Wiz with male pronouns (“he”) but the Scarecrow refers to the Wiz with female pronouns (“she”). Analyzing an earlier Queen Latifah role, Kara Keeling looks at Latifah’s performance as Cleo in Set if Off as one of “ghettocentric” masculinity.[57] Keeling argues that Latifah’s performance resonates with a “queer common sense” configuration of Black lesbian butch identity.[58] Similarly, Latifah’s performance in The Wiz Live! similarly exudes a tough, masculine aesthetic and embodiment. As in Set it Off, here Latifah embodies a “queer common sense” formation of a butch gender presentation.

Latifah’s portrayal of the Wiz exemplifies what Francesca Royster terms an “eccentric performance.”[59] Royster argues that eccentric performance “depends on a queered relationship between body and sound” in which both musical genre and racial and gender boundaries are fluid and flexible.[60] Latifah’s performance in The Wiz Live! plays with this queer relationship: her androgynous gender presentation meets the generic formula of the song. The Wiz Live! pulls from African diasporic musical traditions throughout its score; “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” in particular borrows from the rhythms and melodies of calypso. Meeting the beats of the music, Latifah intersperses her strutting with salsa dance sequences. Royster finds that, for Black performers in particular, eccentric performance provides a method of resistance and means of imagining “new sounds, new dances, new configurations of self—the makings of a black utopia.”[61] In this case, “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” gestures towards the influence of Afro-Caribbean music and queer gender performance in the diaspora.

Of course, as Keeling writes, Latifah’s “hip hop roots” affect the portrayal of her character.[62] The controversy around Latifah’s sexuality also affects this portrayal. As Jonathan Gray writes,

“Paratexts tell us what to expect, and in doing so, they shape the reading strategies that we will take with us ‘into’ the text, and they provide the all-important early frames through which we will examine, react to, and evaluate textual consumption.”[63]

In this case, the “queer common sense” that allows for a queer reading of Latifah’s performance is affected by rumors about her sexuality in the press. As queer Latina writer Gabby Rivera put it while watching the show on Twitter, “yo this is how Queen Latifah romances the ladiesss.”[64] Some queer viewers of the telecast interpreted Latifah’s performance as the Wiz as a representation of butch-femme romantic sociality. Lesbian historiographers have documented how butch-femme social arrangements and aesthetic codes helped create alternative relationships in queer communities[65] By invoking butch aesthetics, Latifah’s performance of female masculinity in The Wiz Live! recalls Black queer and lesbian romantic partnerships. Like the incorporation of vogue in the choreography of the show, Latifah’s queer performance gestures towards the rich cultural history of Black queer community experiences, aesthetics, and relationships.

It is likely that Latifah had less creative control over The Wiz Live! than Bessie because her production company was not involved in the project. Still, she had deep professional and personal ties to the show. Latifah has worked extensively with the out gay executive producers of The Wiz Live! Craig Zadan and Neil Meran.[66] Zadan and Meran produced the film versions of Chicago, Hairspray, and Steel Magnolias (2012) in which Latifah starred. Zadan mentioned in one interview, “The first call we always make on a project is to Queen Latifah.”[67] While it is unclear how much Latifah is able to influence her role in their projects, she has discussed her enthusiasm about working with the team. In the same interview, she says, 

“I felt comfortable with them, like I could trust myself in their hands, otherwise I would never even think about doing this….I wanted to be a part of it from the moment I heard they were doing this.”[68]

Latifah’s personal connection to The Wiz influenced her decision to perform in the show as well. In an interview with Mashable, Latifah credits The Wiz with inspiring her career:

“It was the first Broadway play I ever saw…My mom took me there as a kid — I don’t know how she hustled up those tickets, because I knew money was tight — but she managed to get some tickets and took us to see it. It was the first play I ever saw and I was blown away. I was amazed by it. It opened my mind up ... I was seeing a story that I was familiar with, but told through the lens of people who looked like me, African American people, with some soul to it. It felt more relatable ... Oz wasn’t just a fantasy land, it was a place that I could go.” [69]

Here Latifah describes her affective relationship to The Wiz. Itwas a crucial text for her as a young Black woman growing up in a low-income household. As the first show she ever witnessed as an audience member, it inspired in her a belief in the transformative power of art and in her own ability to create art. While The Wizard of Oz has a long history of generating queer readings in popular culture, as always, Latifah does not discuss the queer aspects of her work in interviews. Still, when spotlighting Black queer aesthetics in Emerald City, The Wiz Live! embraces queer identity and culture and integrates it into the very fabric of the show’s aesthetics. Latifah plays a central role in creating this queer-inclusive fantasy world.

Conclusion: the strategic ambiguity of living out

Whether or not Queen Latifah ever discusses her sexuality in a public way, she is not “hiding” her dedication to LGBTQ communities and Black queer history. I am reminded of how actress Holland Taylor recently discussed her relationships with women: “I haven’t come out because I am out,” she said, adding, “I live out.”[70] By “living out,” Taylor describes how she has pursued relationships with women without discussing them in the press. Queen Latifah may be “living out” as well. As mentioned earlier, she has not hidden her relationships with women from the paparazzi. “Living out” might be a useful approach to describe how some LGBTQ celebrities navigate the constant is-she-or-isn’t-she speculation while trying to maintain some semblance of a private life. Indeed, “living out” resembles Ralina Joseph’s concept of “strategic ambiguity;” describing the work of Black women in television production, Joseph argues “strategic ambiguity” is a tool of postracial resistance that helps women of color navigate and respond to racism and sexism in the workplace.[71] Perhaps Queen Latifah employs strategic ambiguity when confronted with rumors about her sexuality: by evading these questions, she avoids the racialized and gendered homophobia she would likely experience by coming out publicly.

Latifah’s sexual ambiguity may increase her ability to appeal to wide commercial audiences. As Maria San Filippo argues, bisexual representations that appeal “to variable spectatorial identifications, desires, and readings [enhance] commercial prospects, so long as representations of sexuality do not stray too radically from contemporaneous standards of mainstream acceptability.”[72] This commercial strategy, which Katherine Sender calls “dual casting,” allows industry professional to market the same content to both general and niche audiences.[73] In this case, Latifah’s participation in many of her media projects may entertain straight, cisgender audiences while simultaneously exciting LGBTQ viewers who “read” queerness into her performances, as I have done in this article. In Bessie and The Wiz Live!, however, the queer performance is not subtext: as I have discussed, both projects demonstrate a remarkable commitment to uplifting Black LGBTQ culture. Other aspects of these shows—the musical numbers, the representations of marginalized history, or other starring performers—may appeal to wider audiences, but certainly the representations of queer gender and sexuality do stray from mainstream norms more explicitly than most dual-cast commercial media.

While critics and fans may continue to speculate about Latifah’s sexuality, I have proposed an alternative lens through which to engage these questions. Using a production studies approach, combined with an analysis of Latifah’s embodied performances and a paratextual reading of her press interviews, scholars can examine her varied film and television projects, especially those that engage Black LGBTQ culture, regardless of her sexuality. As Royster writes, no matter the sexual identities of certain celebrities,

“their performances mean and mean intensely for other Black and queer lives, as models, influences, and soundtracks to queer world making.”[74]

Latifah does not always play LGBTQ roles—she plays heterosexual characters in many if not most of her roles—yet her work consistently uplifts Black and LGBTQ stories. Looking more closely at this work allows us to see Latifah as a contemporary television producer whose authorial imprint lies in her demonstrated investment in Black queer culture. There is certainly more to add to Queen Latifah’s queer oeuvre—her contributions to contemporary Queer Black Cinema and television are significant. Further work might return to Kara Keeling’s analysis of Latifah’s role in Set it Off, consider Latifah’s role as lesbian commanding officer Matron Mamma Morton in Chicago, or examineher recent queer performance as Hattie McDaniel in Hollywood.To cast off Latifah for her allegedly normative politics, or to ignore her role in creating Black and queer media, is to miss a significant aspect of her work. More urgently, it is to miss the opportunity to examine queer media production beyond out queer authorship. By examining Latifah’s work, scholars can expand our understanding of queer film and television authorship to include the political commitments, performances, and labor of more private media creators. This method of analysis can help transcend the epistemology of the closet in queer media studies to honor the queer labor of these creators without asking invasive questions or making assumptions about their sexualities. As such, it provides new inroads for the study of marginal production cultures, demonstrating how stars can encode queer-of-color subcultural meanings into mainstream texts via production and performance.