Everybody has feelings about Jenji Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black.” I have all the feelings. Since the show’s debut, we’ve tossed opinions back-and-forth about the cast of characters and the powerfully written narratives that reveal the unseen lives of American’s imprisoned women. But of the many conversations that have surfaced, the most discernible for me is of the legitimacy of Piper Kerman, the memoirist about whom the show was made.
In brief, after getting involved with an international drug dealer, Kerman (a white woman) was indicted for money laundering and spent a year in a woman’s prison – you know, the usual account of a well-to-do white woman who graduated from Smith. She subsequently wrote a best-selling memoir, which was adapted for Netflix. You can watch all of season one there now; I finished it in less than a week.
The show follows her into prison and tells the backstory of several other inmates, many of them women of color. The storyline is emotionally riveting. We’re met with race-related segregation, which mirrors the actual prison experience where racial categories and separation are often strictly enforced. Piper’s race and class privilege are checked in the first episode when it’s revealed that she “read up” on prison etiquette before she arrived. One inmate gives birth in prison and comes back to her bunk child-free, showcasing the reality that two-thirds of incarcerated women are mothers and busting the myth that women who labor in prison get to keep their babies. As a birth justice activist, I wished they’d shown the inhumane way in which many prisons shackle women during labor. Keep reading »
A show about women in prison could have easily devolved into mindless titillation or stereotypical boredom. But Netflix’s breakout hit “Orange Is The New Black” has skillfully avoided either trapping. Instead, viewers are treated to a show with well-thought-out story lines, sharp social commentary, diverse, multi-faceted characters with compelling backgrounds, and stellar performances. One of these standouts is actress Laverne Cox, who captures audiences with her portrayal of transgender prison inmate, Sophia Burset.
Looking at her career thus far, it’s easy to see why some have deemed Laverne a trailblazer in many ways. Not only has she made the enviable leap from reality star (appearing on VH1’s “I Want to Work For Diddy”) to skilled actress, but she’s also a producer and transgender advocate. Laverne’s visibility as a trans actress of color is breaking barriers on many levels, and hopefully will pave the way for more rich roles created for trans actors.
I had the chance to speak with Cox and learned more about working with Jodie Foster, her relationship to her activism and her art, and the future of trans actors. Keep reading »
Everything you’ve heard about “Fruitvale Station” is true. The biopic, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at Sundance, explores the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man from Oakland who was shot and killed by a BART officer on New Year’s Day in 2009.
The movie flashes between the past and the present, exploring Grant’s relationship with his four-year-old daughter, his mom, and his girlfriend, who was with him on the night he was shot. After a scuffle on the BART, Grant and his friends, who are all people of color, were detained on the platform. Numerous witnesses filmed the incident with their cell phone cameras, including the moment when Grant, who was unarmed and being restrained by several officers, was shot in the back. That cop claimed he had meant to reach for his Taser; he served less than one year of prison. My three friends and I legitimately bawled for the last 10 minutes of the film. Keep reading »
Almost 250 female inmates in the California prison system were sterilized — some after being pressured by doctors — between 1997 and 2010, according to a a new report. The report conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting quoted women that had felt pestered into getting tubal ligations at both the California Institution for Women in Corona and the Valley State Prison for Women In Chowchilla. Keep reading »
I’ve written candidly about Mother’s Day and all the ways I think the commercialization of it fucks up our relationships with our moms. My own relationship with my mom has been easy because … well, she’s awesome. But my complex relationship to fatherhood makes both talking and writing about it difficult.
There are two people in my life that I call Dad – my biological father and my stepfather. I have very different relationships with each of them and writing about one without mentioning the other feels like a weird act of disloyalty. But this Father’s Day, I’m letting go of that and writing about redemption and it’s relationship to fatherhood.
My biological father has a colorful past; he talks openly and nostalgically about his time as a drug dealer and his stint in prison. I remember bits and pieces of it. One time when I was small, my mother took my sister and me and my brother to the prison to see him. We pressed our dirty, little hands against the impassable glass partition that separated us and talked over a black phone that connected the two sides of the glass. When my dad was released, my parents were separated and we were shuffled back and forth between them every other weekend. My parents were young when they had my twin sister and me — just 21 and 22. Now, having a brother who is 25 and a father, it puts into perspective what it must have been like for my dad to have kids at that age. Keep reading »
Aside from it being Valentine’s Day, February 14 was also the day of the One Billion Rising campaign, which aims to end violence against women. Violence is cyclical, so it should be no surprise that many incarcerated women and men were also once victims of physical, emotional and sexual violence at some point in their lives. To combat the cycle of violence and break the hold that violence and victimization has had on their lives, male and female inmates at a prison in San Francisco took part in a dance project sponsored by the One Billion Rising project. Dance may seem like a rather ephemeral way to address such heady issues, but for the inmates that participated in the program, dance provided a metaphorical way to escape their own feelings of pain, victimization and shame and a powerful physical release to shake off the chains of incarceration. “We have mothers and sister and daughters and women in the world who are affected by this every minute of every day,” said one inmate of the event. “As a man, I promise you, I will stand up and be a role model.” Let’s hope that sentiment spreads. [YouTube]