Our favorite Netflix watch is in need of people of color in the writer's room.
Disclaimer: In an effort to give the eight of you who haven’t watched Season 4 additional time to do so, this article is spoiler-free.
Netflix dropped the entire fourth season of its hugely popular and critically acclaimed show Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) on June 17th. Scores of people binge-watched and were left reeling at the end. They took to social media, especially Twitter, to voice their frustration to the OITNB Writers, and discovered this picture from last year.
It was as if this photograph of the show’s homogenous group of writers answered so many questions about why events occurred as they did, not just in the current season, but previously as well. Glaringly, there are no Black OITNB writers, and as reported, nearly 90% of the OITNB writers credited for all four seasons of the show are White.
There have been inklings of this shortcoming all along. In the first season, Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) questions whether Black people can be racist, albeit unable to act on their racism. Yet, the truth is that while Blacks can be discriminatory or bigoted, they cannot be racist. Racism, by definition, has at its core a systemic historical and institutional component of which Black people have never had control.
In Season 4, OITNB took on the herculean task of delving into several issues involving race, including police brutality, a new character who is reminiscent of Paula Deen, the Black Lives Matter movement, and growing conflict between Puerto Rican and Dominican inmates. Unfortunately, viewers were left wanting at the end of the season, perhaps because these issues were not handled as well as they could have been had there been more writers of color on staff.
OITNB is based roughly on the life of a White woman, Piper Chapman, and her experiences in the prison industrial complex. In a nod to art imitating life, in which 30 percent of America’s prison system’s women inmates are Black women and 16 percent are Latina, OITNB has phenomenal actresses from traditionally underrepresented communities. Women of different races, ethnicities, and sexual identities dive deep into the words on the scripts’ pages. This isn’t lip-service being paid on the screen. A trans woman is playing a trans inmate (as opposed to, for example, a man playing a trans woman, as Eddie Redmayne did in the film The Danish Girl last year). That’s important because we all see issues through our own critical lens. It is that frame of reference that informs us. So, too, must it be in the OITNB writers’ room, as these characters come to life on the page. It is a bit reminiscent of Matt Damon telling Effie Brown that diversity occurs in the casting, but not behind the camera. I submit that it can and should be both.
A 2015 report from the Writers Guild of America notes that people of color comprise approximately 13 percent of the show writers working today. As I have long maintained when discussing this issue in terms of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite that I created, this is not about quotas. I do not advocate to have a Black person in every phase of production so that a box can be checked as “filled.” Rather, when there is acting of such high caliber, the show demands that the actors are able to fully explore the depth of their characters. That is not being accomplished here. Nuances and complexity are left unmined in a way that they may not be with more people of color on staff.
Specifically for OITNB, which is filmed in New York, there are financial incentives to increasing the diversity of its behind the camera team. The Empire State Film Production Credit is a tax incentive program that would provide credits to shows that hire writers and directors of color. As is the case in many facets of the entertainment industry, there is not a shortage of talent, but opportunity. OITNB has been renewed for three more seasons. As you binge-watch Season 4 and then count the days until Season 5, ask yourself how much better the show could be if there was at least one Black writer in the room.
April Reign is the creator of the viral hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite. A former attorney, she is positioned at the intersection of race, politics and pop culture.