How Orange Is The New Black Used, and Then Failed the Black Lives Matter Movement

On Cowardice in the Writers Room and Conservative Messages about Race

TV Features Orange Is the New Black
How Orange Is The New Black Used, and Then Failed the Black Lives Matter Movement

This article contains spoilers from Orange is the New Black Season Four.

Four seasons in, and Orange Is The New Black continues to be an exciting and powerful series that does what few shows can, finding that difficult balance between humor and drama. Critic Matt Brennan, who covers the show with episodic reviews at Paste, recently pulled on Albert Camus to delve into the complexities of the series, and I have written about the unique brand of diversity the show supports and the overall importance of seeing these phenomenal women (the actors, and the characters they play) on TV.

So when I started seeing headlines declaring that the show had made some questionable decisions, that it had failed its black audience in some way, I admit to being a bit incredulous. This is the show that has given us Laverne Cox/Sophia Burset. This is the show where a black woman (my personal favorite character, Black Cindy Tova, portrayed by the great Adrienne C. Moore) had a meaningful conversion to another religion, that resulted in some of the most powerful scenes about faith on TV. How could it all have gone so wrong?

Well, to be fair, it didn’t all go wrong. This was another strong season of a typically great show, although it was a very different season from what we’ve grown used to. But OITNB has always surprised us with its turns in subject and scope. Last year, there were complaints that OITNB was falling off—too concerned with Mommy issues and other seemingly smaller narratives to be as interesting as, say, the memorable season before, which gave us the great Vee Parker (Lorraine Toussaint in an incredible turn as the Litchfield villain, or el jefe). Season Three offered a different tone from what we’d seen before, but the storytelling didn’t necessarily suffer. In some ways, the same can be said for Season Four. That tragicomic blend that once made it difficult to properly categorize the show started to wane, somewhere around the episode where we watched one of the most innocent inmates make a horrifying decision: baby mouse or ten dead flies. No, this is not the OITNB of old, but it didn’t need to be, nor should we have expected it to be.

Given its topics and characters, however, it did need to be a show capable of delivering a bold and honest narrative about race and the Black Lives Matter movement in America. I have seen some shows, like Scandal and The Good Wife, have great seasons and then fail to deliver on this front. But Orange is the New Black is not like those other shows, and has no excuse for the cowardice exhibited in the final two episodes of the fourth season. One reason so many of us have been drawn to the series is because, for the most part, OITNB does not insist on a happy ending, on a narrative where we learn that we’re all human and ultimately, mostly good at the end of the day. People who deserve comeuppance don’t always get it, and bad things happen to good people all of the time. This is a show that takes everything many of us have been [mis]taught about the system of crime and punishment in America, and has dared to suggest that it’s far more complicated than crime = punishment. Inequality, racism and poverty = crime, counters OITNB, and that’s only the half of it. So why would a show, one that’s often so good at turning certain certain popular notions on their head, a show that often seemed unafraid of backlash and so thrilled to take risks in almost every plot, suddenly buckle when it came time to take on the issue of white law enforcement officers killing black people?

By the time we arrive at the penultimate of the season, “The Animals,” we are meant to see Officer Bayley as one of the good guys. He’s a sweet kid, easily influenced by those around him—be they the friends he grew up with, or his fellow officers. Through it all though, he maintains his innocence. It’s so very important that he be presented as innocent, especially alongside the new, terrifying and infuriating guards around him, because he is going to kill one of the black inmates at Litchfield: Poussey Washington, played by the amazing Samira Wiley.

I am not opposed to the death of Poussey, much as I would have liked to see her story carry on. This season needed an ending with a tragedy of this magnitude, but its politicized presentation was, again, cowardly. I say “politicized,” because I loved the way the show handled the personal aspects of the death. Seeing Poussey’s last days in America before her move to Amsterdam was important; watching each character grieve her loss in ways specific to each of them was powerful (Suzanne and the books, Taystee, fighting for her best friend’s life, even in death). Even the inappropriate moments of humor didn’t turn me off, because it was true to OITNB’s style, where humor often arises in the least humorous of scenarios. In this, OITNB proved that its writers know how to deal with the personal aspects of grief, but where that grief is also public, social and political, they failed. In addition to presenting Poussey’s killing, and the aftermath, by ripping stories from the headlines—everyone from Michael Brown, to Tamir Rice, to Eric Garner, to Rekia Boyd (all victims whose stories garnered national attention because of the Black Lives Matter movement)—OITNB writers sought to use another type of headline to weaken the politics surrounding the murder. These headlines are the ones we’re all most familiar with, because they represent the dominant (white, male-centric, police sympathizing) view, where good cops make understandably bad mistakes. Where a death has occurred, but it’s really no one’s fault. Or, perhaps just as bad, it’s The System’s fault—as if The System is this sort of vague notion that claims everyone in and around it.

It actually bothers me to have to say this about one of my favorite shows, but I’d even go so far as to argue that OITNB makes another black character responsible for Poussey’s death. In the devastating scene, Bayley is distracted by Suzanne flipping out. When she jumps on him, she basically makes it impossible for Bayley to see that he’s killing Poussey. Not only is he a good officer, who doesn’t mean to kill her, but he’s also alleviated of guilt by the writers because “Crazy Eyes” is attacking him. And still, the director of the episode, and acclaimed Mad Men creator, Matt Weiner insisted that the point of the episode was not to alleviate Bayley, or send the message that Poussey’s death was an accident:

Emotionally, what’s going on? It’s exactly what you think. He has to not know what he’s doing. He has to be afraid enough that he will be forceful, and then it has to feel like, in a way, that it’s an accident. But, of course, the whole story of the episode is that nothing is an accident. This entire environment has been created because of the corporatization of the prison, which then became Caputo becoming more of an administrator, Piscatella kind of having a fascist attitude about his job, and having a coup. And then everybody just sort of falls into their jobs during the panic, which means that innocent people will be killed.

But as Weiner admits, “it has to feel like, in a way, that it’s an accident.” And that feeling—rather than the critique of the corporatization of prisons—is what lingers over the episode, and the finale. Because, of all the officers on this show who might have killed Poussey, it’s not one of those fascist bad guys, but the good guy who does it. So, Bayley becomes a victim too in this.

It’s the story white people across America (well-meaning and otherwise) love to hear, because it “proves” that so many of these killings are either accidents, or the result of “difficult” situations—not examples of racism, or classism, or the existence of a police state. And so, all of the work that OITNB does to present the problem of private prisons and mass incarceration is all but undone with the presentation of Poussey’s death.

Unlike others who’ve written about this problem (and Awesomely Luvvie presents more of the issues, beyond Poussey’s death, though I’m not in agreement with all of her critiques), I’m not walking away from OITNB yet. Of course, I agree that the show must add black writers to its writers room, if it expects to maintain any semblance of authenticity, if it’s important to Jenji Kohan that black people have some say in the presentation of the many, many black characters on the show. However, I don’t think that the problem with Poussey’s storyline is merely a symptom of a very white writer’s room, and I return to the Scandal Black Lives Matter episode as proof. Season Four’s “The Lawn Chair,” was a complete disappointment to black viewers with higher expectations for a show created by the great Shonda Rhimes. The episode was also written by one of the two black writers on the show, Zahir McGee. And although it didn’t attempt to humanize those police who murder, in the same way that OITNB did, the episode offered up a completely ridiculous, fantasy-fueled resolution where justice was not only served, but the grieving father who pulled a rifle out on an entire police force was eventually rewarded with a special trip to the White House! Perhaps the only reason more people weren’t up in arms is because Scandal is known for some ridiculous, fantasy-fueled storylines. But when it comes to a movement like Black Lives Matter—and when the writers in these TV rooms are going to use the movement for material—those of us involved in the movement have every right to be angry when the writers (be they black or white) and the show fail us.

Having a black writer on staff at OITNB is only one part of the battle here. TV shows in general, particularly shows that clearly have a political bent and a progressive or even radical message that they insist on sending in all their other episodes, take on a responsibility when they decide to take on the movement. These writers may not want such responsibility—may not believe they signed up to be labeled as either “brave” or “cowardly”—but Black Lives Matter exists because actual people are actually dying, and their murderers continue to go unpunished. No, these people are not being accidentally killed by nice guys who are victims of the system too, and there are no politicians passing laws to honor their memories and to stop police brutality in the wake of their deaths (quite the contrary). So these writers and showrunners who believe they are creating powerful content that deviates from the norm—and they believe it, because, in many cases it’s true—need to continue to work harder to properly address the race issues and racial violence they insist on bringing into their scripts.

After this season, OITNB has already lost many black viewers, for whom the insult of Poussey’s death at the hands of The Good Cop was just too much in a season where the black inmates were already, arguably, the most frequently insulted and disrespected characters on the show. I’d hate to come to think of this show the way I do new Woody Allen movies, The Cosby Show reruns or Chris Brown songs—where I’ll bear witness, and maybe even enjoy some aspects of the work, but I won’t ever be able to fully separate the problematics of the creator from the art. In spite of the flaws I see, I still have faith that OITNB can do better, and can continue to go boldly where so few shows have gone. They can start by reviving Black Cindy Tova’s conversion narrative—giving it due diligence instead of making it a punchline, like it was in Season Four—and by writing a fifth season that doesn’t seek to co-opt a movement, only to put a conservative spin on a powerful message: in prisons, in universities, in Chicago, in the back of Baltimore police vans, in Cleveland parks, wearing hoodies, or driving their cars in Prairie View, Texas, black lives, bodies and minds matter.

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.

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