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How Did OITNB Get 'Black Lives Matter' So Very, Very, Wrong?

Updated on July 13, 2016
Edithe Estelle profile image

A global nomad who likes to laugh, loves the power of words, believes in good grammar, giving and being open to the mysteries of receiving!

Last season was already, like the character of the same name, So-So. This season was plain No-No.

An out of the gate hit, season one focused heavily on Piper, a Caucasian main character.

Spoiler alert! if you have not watched season 4 of Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) there are major spoilers ahead, so save this article for later and read no further if you enjoy being surprised.

OITNB has been a hit since its premiere. The 'based on a true story' of the happenings taking place inside a woman's prison turned out to be attractive to more than those who watch HBO's Late Night content. The show managed to blend comedy with drama so seamlessly it was nominated for Emmy's in both categories.

In addition to providing meaty roles for ethnic minorities, OITNB prides itself on telling women’s stories, even at an age when Hollywood normally starts to shove them out to pasture. Physical and emotional abuse, going all out for the man they loved to the detriment of their own welfare, cyclic criminal behavior spanning generations that lands both mother and daughter in prison at the same time, and all of the other mistakes that can be made when a woman is just trying to fit in or save the world. Some ended up in the prison after a lifetime of criminal behavior, others because of one, small misstep for which they will now pay for a lifetime. The plot and setting is such that it's rich with material and constant opportunities to get rid of characters or bring new ones in, and can easily be a series that runs for multiple seasons. So how is it that many became disenchanted with the show in it's 3rd season, and some, myself included, have decided that after viewing the 4th season they will not be eagerly anticipating a 5th?

The first season's main storylines involved Piper, played by Taylor Schilling, branching out gradually to include the other prisoners. Apparently feeling their oats, this season OITNB decided to stick it's camel toe into very hot waters indeed, that of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the result is unfortunate. The entire 4th season reads like a group of White liberals attempting to explain the movement to a group of White conservatives. The episodes play like a Big Red Bus tour through an urban neighborhood "and here we have the disenfranchised negro, that there is the misunderstood negro, to the left you’ll see the endearing negro, if you smile and nod they’ll do the same, and way over there is the fundamentally upset negro that is always angry no matter how well you treat them. Don’t get too close!”

This photo of the OITNB writers brings up many, many questions, but also provides some answers.

This sculpture of "A Thoughtful Woman" by Elizabeth Catlett appears to be trying to put her finger on why this group of people has difficulty writing authentic minority stories. Hmm, what could it be?
This sculpture of "A Thoughtful Woman" by Elizabeth Catlett appears to be trying to put her finger on why this group of people has difficulty writing authentic minority stories. Hmm, what could it be? | Source

With a group of writers that lacks the ethnic diversity behind the scenes that is portrayed in front of the camera, how do the writer's know what it was like for Janay to grow up with Black Muslim parents in the Nation of Islam? How do they know about the Latino community? How do they know what it feels like to be a part of those worlds and what the interactions are like, as well as what it's like to interact with…themselves? Are we suppose to assume authenticity because of head writer Morelli's much publicized lesbian epiphany and subsequent interracial relationship with one of the shows stars when filming the first season? I mean surely since she not only knows a Black person but is dating one that counts for extra right? Still...

It's probably best to corroborate information from more than one source.

right; OITNB Head Writer Lauren Morelli left; Morelli and partner, 'Orange' star Samira Wiley  on the red carpet
right; OITNB Head Writer Lauren Morelli left; Morelli and partner, 'Orange' star Samira Wiley on the red carpet | Source

Black people shouldn't have to be "good" to live. At least not only Black people.

Criticisms of the BLM movement that comes from White America includes frequently made statements, the summary of which is that if the Black people involved had not somehow invited the police presence into their lives by engaging in whatever behavior they did that wasn't law abiding enough, supplicating enough, respectful enough of the uniform and society, they wouldn't be dead. Sandra Bland should've put out her cigarette when the officer told her to and not been so snippy. Eric Garner should not have been selling loose cigarettes. A claim attached to Mike Brown is that he possibly swiped a box of cigars, that has never been proven, but so what if it had? Even in Saudi Arabia none of those crimes are punishable by death.

I could go on and on, unfortunately the list of names is heartbreakingly long, but I'll finish with the two most recent igniting the country right now, Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, with the latter shot dead by an officer when he moved to comply with a request to furnish identification after being stopped for a broken taillight. This argument needs to be dismantled. Black people don't have to be saints to be entitled to live. Black people should be able to be good, bad, in-between, the entire spectrum and be treated accordingly, in the same style and fashion as everyone else. We are not asking for a pass to commit crimes because we're Black, we're asking to be ticketed or arrested, tried in a court of law and if guilty go to jail or pay a fine like everyone else. We are asking to not be instantly executed.

In season 5 of OITNB a key character, Poussey Washington, is choked to death by a guard. In addition to being one of the most popular characters on the show, Washington is also the good girl in the prison. Never been to solitary, doesn't get infractions, she's sweet, jokey, gets along with everyone and makes homemade prison hooch that she doesn't sell or barter, she just gives it away so everyone can have a good time! Outside of prison Washington was a West Point bound military brat who speaks 3 languages and ended up in prison for the terrible crime of selling/possessing marijuana. Do you see where I'm going with this? By choosing this character to be killed at the hands of the police, OITNB is signing off that it's okay to peruse the background of a person unfairly killed by the police to decide if they "brought it on themselves" or not.

Black Deaths For...


The chant of "hands up, don't shoot" is not a love song.

Too often when these police brutality situations happen people want to stop and start the narrative at points where it is convenient for them, speaking about past criminal history or current criminal behavior and yes, that's usually why the police are summoned, however they are supposed to be trained to deescalate and if necessary arrest suspects. This is a feat they are by and large able to accomplish when it comes to non-Blacks, while Black people are handed out instant death sentences and then get their reputations put on trial for the “crime” of being murdered. Mass media is incredibly complicit in perpetuating this behavior, often under the guise of trying to "understand" what happened.

Black people don't have to be perfect just to be allowed to live, and by choosing the least offensive character as the victim OITNB writers feed into that belief. Again, the argument to White conservatives is, if we could all just stop and get to know one another these "misunderstandings" wouldn't take place because some of "them" are really okay. The entire last two episodes of season four was spent showcasing Poussey's life prior to incarceration, showing her partying with people of all ages, races and sexual orientations. The obvious conclusion is she didn't deserve to be killed, because she was one of the "good" ones. So my question is, if it was the nefarious character Vee, scheming, plotting, friend to none, a person who many celebrated as receiving her just desserts when she was mowed down by a van in the season 2 finale, had it been Vee who was pinned down for doing nothing at that particular point in time except peacefully protesting for her rights and had the life choked out of her by an overly aggressive and ill-trained officer, were we supposed to not care? If OITNB truly wanted to step out of the world of the ‘but-buts’, you know those who have an excuse for every claim of racism, they would have chosen the absolute worst character imaginable and STILL been able to create a circumstance that evoked a lack of justice, tears and sympathy for her demise! Poussey could have been killed by a peanut allergy and people still would have been up in arms because she was loved. BLM is not marching to achieve the love of White people, what's wanted is respect and equality.

Complaints filed against individuals, departments and entire precincts are ignored.

Let's talk about the officers on the show, because another popular sentiment is that the officers involved in these publicized killings of Black people are "good guys" put into "bad circumstances" and it's all some large misunderstanding, an unstoppable swirl of events with people who are trying their very best but somehow get caught in the eye of a storm they didn't see coming and now can't find their way out. By and large a load of crap. People of all ethnicities get into trouble every day. Every day police respond to calls of loiterers, burglars, domestic disputes, assaults, shoplifters, trespassers and a stack of other complaints. If poor training and unfortunate circumstances were to blame, the proportion of Black people killed by police would be proportional to Asian, Indian and Caucasian people killed by police. Instead the numbers of unarmed Blacks in America killed by police far outpace any other ethnicity, and when you factor in the interactions beginning for nonviolent offenses the statistical gap grows wider, and this is for a group that comprises a minority of the population.

In OITNB, the guard responsible for the death of Poussey is a young, good-hearted person who is eager to do a good job, blows the whistle on abuses of power that he sees taking place among the other guards and is just trying to do the best he can with what he's faced with. Even the death of the inmate at his hands is portrayed as accidental, he was merely trying to multitask, help everyone out his fellow guards and inmates alike, and in the midst of all the chaos and confusion "forgot" that he was basically sitting on an actual human. He didn't notice her flailing or cries for help because things were "so chaotic". At the most he was guilty of making a poor decision, like those people who leave their dogs in hot cars in the summertime because they're just running into the store for a minute and then get distracted.

The unfortunate do-gooder, the baddie, and the unfortunate innocent? No, it doesn't work that way in real life.

left; Alan Aisenberg's clueless guard, CO Bayley middle; Lorraine Toussaint's shudder-inducing, Vee right; Samira Wiley's fun-loving character, Poussey
left; Alan Aisenberg's clueless guard, CO Bayley middle; Lorraine Toussaint's shudder-inducing, Vee right; Samira Wiley's fun-loving character, Poussey

Sorry OITNB writers, that's just not reality. In the case of Eric Garner, whose death that scene was meant to reenact, the cops used a previously banned choke hold, and very clearly heard him saying over and over, "I can't breath". They told him to stop "resisting" arrest when what he was resisting was death. Have you ever had someone cover your nose and mouth to stop you from breathing and been able to keep still? No, not only does the mind panic but the body struggles and there are all sorts of involuntary movements, if you were offered a million dollars on some sort of twisted, game show, you couldn't keep yourself from wiggling around. The compliance those officers were waiting on, the "respect" of total submission, came with his death and it was no mere accident or mistake. These officers, like many of the ones involved in the fatal shootings of Black people, have superiority issues. They don't talk things out, see from another perspective, they don't try to have a meeting of the minds or approach a situation as an adult. It doesn't matter if it is another grown man they are approaching, a woman or, as in the case of Tamir Rice, a defenseless, young child playing with a toy. These officers have power issues, they consider themselves the ultimate authority. If their backgrounds were explored, delving into their childhood and personal interactions with others you likely wouldn't find that they are innocent, wide-eyed men with a desire in their heart to do good. You would find that they are like the young adolescent thugs turned police officers in Stanley Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange', who have now found a way to continue their violent tendencies and explore their depravity for people AND get paid to boot! These officers harbor a desire to be seen as the ultimate authoritarian while hiding safely within a blue uniform, exploiting an already vulnerable population that they know doesn't hold a great deal of political power to cause them any significant damage. These type of officers willingly engage in a game of chicken that they know they can always win with the power of their badge and guns. This is not new, it has been going on for years, the ability to now film the interactions has provided much needed corroboration of stories coming from the Black community for years. The eventual death of someone at the hands of an officer is often foretold by a slew of complaints.

This was the case with Francis Livoti, the officer involved in the death of Anthony Baez, who had racked up 11 abuse and brutality complaints in as many years before the encounter that proved fatal for Baez.

While the 'Black Lives Matter' movement may be new, the issues are not.

left; Demonstrators march at rally, 1994 right; Anthony Baez
left; Demonstrators march at rally, 1994 right; Anthony Baez

This is the earliest high-profile police brutality case I can recall. Today I'm sure 9-year olds can rattle off five names in as many seconds. Anthony Baez, I will never forget that name and it popped right into my head when Eric Garner was killed. It's one of those confusing times from childhood that scars you when you see that the adults, your protectors, are themselves shaken. Not safe even in the far north of New York, I'm sure this brought back unwelcome memories for my southern raised father.

Anthony Baez was a Latino man who was killed by police 3 days before Christmas at the age of 29, for playing a game of football with his brothers in the street that resulted in the ball hitting a parked police car. Baez was visiting from Florida and that scene for me needs no further description it's so familiar. Not just the various games played in the streets outdoors in a city that has too many people and too few parks, but the excitement at seeing family that you haven't seen in awhile. Struggling to remain awake until your eyelids refuse to stay open because you don't want to miss a moment of this precious time. Challenging your siblings or cousins to a game that you played as children because, "I can still beat your butt in checkers", monopoly, spades, basketball or in this unfortunately fatal game, football. Police officers involved claimed Baez resisted arrest. I wonder why an arrest was even being attempted for an errant ball that hit a car and broke nothing. Six officers were involved in his arrest, according to witnesses they converged on the Baez brothers. Without being there myself I already know some things for a fact. Not one of the officers made any small talk, you know like the TSA and customs agents are trained to do in order to surreptitiously see if you might be anxious or fidgety in some way that arouses suspicion and should be flagged. Not one of them commented on the enjoyment of football, family, the upcoming holiday or said any sentence that would lead you to believe there were men, within the same generation, having a conversation. Not one of them even made a suggestion that the Baez brothers start throwing the ball in a different direction or possibly find another game entirely. No, the small-minded, shallow ego of these officers felt disrespected, and that was enough for them to kill a man.

Minorities to tell minority stories? No duh Damon!

So back to OITNB, how did a show with a largely minority cast end up getting all of this so wrong when they had 13 episodes in which to tell this story and an already pretty perfect setting?

One of the answers may lie in the debate that ensued a year ago after a comment made by Matt Damon where he implied that it was not necessary to employ minorities behind the scenes to tell stories featuring minority characters. Damon stated, "...when we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.”, basically saying that as long as minorities are represented to the eye, it doesn't matter who writes, directs or produces their lines. I can only imagine what it must've been like on the set of 'Gone With The Wind' as Victor Fleming, the director, encouraged Hattie McDaniel to really lean in to those vowels when she exclaimed, "Lawdy Ms. Scarlett, youse get back hurr fo yous kitch yo def a cold!" Apparently Matt Damon thinks there's nothing wrong with that, and apparently Jenji Kohan and others responsible for hiring the writing staff on OITNB agree.

BLM cannot be boiled down to a few catchphrases like, "I can't breathe", "no justice, no peace" or "say her name". The solution cannot be found in mere mediation because both sides do not have equal power to bring to the table, and apparently, the fundamentals of the movement cannot be properly and adequately addressed by a collection of majority White writers, no matter how much they might love Kendrick Lamar. Considering the cliffhanger this season ended on I already know if the current trend continues the 5th season will be rife with apologies on both sides, speeches about love and how you can’t fight hate with hate, the Us vs. Them anguish, and of course, the dreaded ‘all lives matter’. They can have at it, I won’t be watching until they leave the telling of Black stories to those who have that slight edge on understanding, or at the very least include Black writers in the process. Because, while orange may be the new black, Whites, no matter how liberal, will never be Black.

What Matt Damon and the executives at OITNB apparently think is ok.
What Matt Damon and the executives at OITNB apparently think is ok.

I know, so hard to choose, but give it a try!

Who is your favorite 'Orange' inmate?

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      2 years ago

      Beautiful article, well put together. I just want to say it's Hollywood and they always give enough just to say we support this but from a young black girl who has never been in jail or have seen white police brutality but I've seen police brutality so I kinda it's the same because nobody should abuse their authority. As for oitnb I think they chose poussey to die show even when you are well educated and you are an all around good person one mistake automatically makes your life matters less (well at least that's my opinion) it felt like the huge number of police killings where they claimed the person did this or that just to justify killing another human being no one as you said should be choked or gunned down everyone has the right to a trial no matter the crime and its sad that minorities have become target practice or meaningless people when those minorities make the country and pays your salaries . The officer part was just to create emotions so you can hurt for both parties that wasn't a real thing because a good officer would taken his ass off a girl who weighed about 90pounds,who was just trying to help her friend. so I think that scene was white privilege at its best because if a black man had did it they wouldn't care if he was good or not. A white man shot 9 people they took him to burger king and the lawyer now wants the case dismissed then you have a black man who they claimed killed 4 officers and they killed him with a robot like his life didn't mean shit yea he comitted a horrible crime but he should of been able to be judged for it in court. Then there was this white man who shot police too but yet his picture wasn't plastered all over the news again why does anyone else life matters but not ours? They could of made the other officer who took the gun in jail but viewers would of been all like yes that's why you have to kill these cops and that would've caused a lot of backlash, so obviously they had to create a scene where you sympathize with the officer to suit all viewers, which is fine there's money to be made but i think if you are going to shed light on an issue don't light a candle turn on the bright lights let people know this is a real thing all lives dont matter because black lives never mattered they just tolerate us and any other person that is not them and its like they are getting tired of tolerating. I think its time we stop settling for toleration and demand respect because our lives mean something we are apart of this world and we intend on living here with the same amount of privilege as any other race. Don't just steal our culture and use it as your own without giving credit to the people that created it. It is true you can't fight hate with hate and black people aren't people who are angry and hate all the time so we won't win that war if we fight back like that we need to come together, work on our communities, open more black schools and colleges educate the children about their real culture and let them study to own businesses instead of working for businesses, let us be the district attorneys and the judges . we need to make serious changes, until then we hit the streets and protest until they hear us and respect our lives because all lives can't matter unless black lives matter


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