Art truly imitated life in this season of Orange Is the New Black on Netflix, but that imitation is causing controversy — especially in its portrayal of characters of color and their stories.
The fourth season, which hit the streaming site in June, highlighted many topics central to the debate about prisons, along with issues of race and anti-trans violence. For some, the season was eye-opening.
For others, it was traumatic, denounced as "trauma porn written for white people." And while there was no shortage of drama on-screen, many of the critics saved their sharpest bite for what went down behind the scenes.
"It's hard because we are happy to have a show like OITNB on the air, but I think we can critique it from a place of love," says April Reign, a former attorney, media writer, and creator of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. "But if you are writing for someone in whose demographic you don't fall, then I think it's imperative that you reach out to someone within that community — especially if it's a marginalized community — and get their input. Either as a cowriter, or a consultant, or even as a friend."
This season included a death of a major character, Poussey Washington, in a violent manner clearly inspired by a mashup of real-world headlines. Central to this season's intertwined storylines was the privatization of Litchfield, which brought with it the escalated use of racial slurs and tension between inmates and guards, and increasingly violent interactions between white guards and inmates of color. Some of those instances rose to the level of torture — but it always seemed to be people of color on the receiving end of such violence.
It's not surprising that a show about prison would highlight the harsh reality faced by inmates and even emphasize the disproportional incarceration and abuse faced by people of color. In fact, that's been a trait the show has been praised for in the past.
The increasing privatization of prisons — where for-profit corporations take over correctional institutions, often with little regard for the humanity of the people in prison — has been decried by some as a blatant effort to promote mass incarceration. Indeed, data from the Sentencing Project shows that the majority of those incarcerated are people of color. Black people are especially vulnerable, being incarcerated at a rate of 5.1 times that of whites. As many critics have noted, sharing these stories is important.
But OITNB didn’t have to do it all like that. It didn’t have to do Poussey like that. And it didn’t have to do Sophia like that. And we all know Black Cindy wouldn't have said that black people could still be racist, because racism is a systemic issue.
So the attempts to expose the audience to important problems in our society may have informed some, while turning others away. Even Samira Wiley, the out actress who plays Poussey, worried about how this season would be received by fans.
Reign, who is also managing editor for the website Broadway Black, says it's not the issues that the show handled but the way in which they were handled that's causing the current controversy.
"We all come to the table, and in this case the page, with our own set of biases and our own frames of reference," says Reign, whose hilarious tweet in 2015 launched a viral discussion about race in Hollywood in response to the lack of diversity among Academy members and Oscar nominees. "If I wanted to write about trans issues or issues affecting First Nations people or people with disabilities, because I am none of those people, I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that and ensure that I was giving honor to their stories."
A crucial part of honoring those stories requires inviting people who hold marginalized identities to the table — or in the case of OITNB, to the writers' room.
"There are enough qualified black writers out there who would love the opportunity to write for black characters ... strong, well-developed black characters like Orange Is the New Black," says Reign. "Why not give them the opportunity to come into the writing room? Hopefully as writers, but at least as consultants."
A June tweet from a verified account identified as the "Orange Writers Room" prompted a new round of critique about the show's due diligence toward people of color, as countless advocates noted the overwhelming whiteness of the writers behind the hit show. The photo, tweeted out for National Gun Violence Awareness Day, showed not a single black person in the room.
Of course, a lack of diversity behind the scenes isn't limited to OITNB. A recent report from the Writers Guild of America, West found that minorities are "severely underrepresented among the corps of film and television writers,” by a factor of “nearly 3 to 1 in television and more than 5 to 1 in film.”
While Reign doesn't think a writer has to be a direct member of the population they're writing about, they should at least connect with that population, she says.
"Why aren't you at least talking to your one black friend that every white person has about these issues?" she asks, somewhat rhetorically.
As binge-watchers devoured season 4 of OITNB, critics lit up Twitter with hashtags like #HireBlackWriters and #HireBlackEditors. The efforts not only reflect the urgency to place black people in key roles related to their storytelling but also highlight the fact that there is no shortage of talented black writers and editors available to any writing team that chooses to seek them out.
There is even an online directory aptly called Writers of Color, but none of the people listed there have been employed on OITNB. And this season wasn't the first time Netflix's critical darling has come under fire for its portrayal of ethnic characters.
That leaves two two big questions looming for season 5: What will happen in front of the camera around black and brown lives? And what will happen behind the scenes to include more black and brown voices crafting their own narratives?
Reign thinks the solution lies in widening the net and hopes that OITNB and the rest of Hollywood gets a clear message next season. Though she says that adding more black people is a start, real change requires more than just adding a few specks of pepper to the pile of salt.
"Make sure that you are fully realizing the depths of both the characters, and the issues that your characters face," advises Reign.
And maybe hire some black writers and editors. Just for good measure.