What made ‘Orange Is the New Black’ so fabulous? Her name is Danielle Brooks Now in its seventh and final season, “OITNB shows what the streaming era can and should be: addictive, unique and inclusive

Spoilers ahead! This piece includes details on the seventh season.

If you want to understand the significance of Orange Is the New Black, look at its breakout star, Danielle Brooks, who played Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson.

On Friday, Netflix released the final 13 episodes of the show that has functioned as an exemplar of what the streaming era could and should be: addictive, unique and inclusive. It used actors who are often overlooked — black women, Latinas and older women — to focus our attention on women who are completely overlooked: female prisoners.

Orange Is the New Black debuted in 2013, a few months after House of Cards, Netflix’s first foray into original programming, and it’s still the network’s most watched program. The adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir of life in a women’s prison made celebrities of a number of cast members, among them Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley and Dascha Polanco. It gave Kate Mulgrew a second iconic role, as Red, after years of being known as Star Trek: Voyager’s Kathryn Janeway. Cox, thanks to her role as Sophia Burset, became the first openly transgender actor to be nominated for a prime-time Emmy.

But even surrounded by an ensemble blistering with talent, Brooks was always one of the most exciting things about Orange Is the New Black. She was originally hired to play Tasha for two episodes before getting promoted to a recurring role, and by season two she had secured a position as a series regular.

Showrunner and creator Jenji Kohan has spoken repeatedly about using the character of Piper Chapman — a sheltered, thin, liberal blonde who came from a family of means — as a “Trojan horse.” She was a device that allowed Kohan to tell the stories of women who had been disenfranchised and forgotten — women like Tasha Jefferson.

Tasha is the first person the audience sees Piper interacting with at Litchfield Correctional, the prison in upstate New York where Orange is set. The series opens with Piper’s voice narrating her life, explaining how much being clean is her “happy place,” especially when she’s bathing or showering with a romantic partner.

And then in bounces Tasha, in a cornflower blue muumuu printed with white flowers, the sort of thing that would be at home on a Southern retiree shuffling to her front porch with an Arnold Palmer in hand. Except we’re in prison, and all is not so bucolic for Piper anymore. Brooks immediately steals the scene as she tells Piper to hurry up and finish showering while there’s still a bit of hot water left.

She peeks through a rip in the shower curtain, then proclaims: “Daaaaamn, you got some nice titties! You got them TV titties. They stand up on they own, all perky and everything!”

In a matter of seconds, you had to wonder: Who is this woman, and when do we get to see more of her?

“Unlike theater, you don’t have a long rehearsal period at all,” Brooks said in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “You just do it. You have limited time to make choices. TV has taught me to make bold choices in the moment, the minute they come to you, and not to hold back.”

Her choices paid off. Tasha quickly became a source of levity within Litchfield, sharp-tongued and skeptical of both whiteness and authority in general. But she was a nurturer too. She looked after the naive, neurodivergent Suzanne, played by Aduba. She kept her best friend Poussey, played by Wiley, from succumbing to hopelessness and addiction.

And then she changed.


Dascha Polanco (left) and Danielle Brooks (right) in a scene from the final season of Orange Is the New Black.

Cara Howe

Over the course of its run, Orange Is the New Black became more ambitious while the conditions at Litchfield worsened, especially after the facility was taken over by a private prison corporation bent on maximizing profits, usually at the expense of basic human decency.

The guards grew tougher, more jaded and sadistic. The inmates grew meaner, more isolated and more indignant. Their interactions and allegiances became increasingly segregated by race. Tasha, motivated by the worsening conditions at Litchfield, shows up at the prison equivalent of the Yalta Conference to represent the black inmates and negotiate a coalition of resistance. Taystee has grown up.

And then everything goes south when Poussey gets suffocated by a guard in the cafeteria.

The women had been peacefully standing on cafeteria tables to protest overcrowding and a staff of inexperienced, undertrained guards. A corrections officer calls for backup, and the guards begin wrestling the women down from the tables. A peaceful protest devolves into mayhem. When the women realize that Poussey is on the floor, lifeless, the chaos subsides. Tasha breaks free from a guard and pushes her way to her best friend’s side. She collapses on the floor beside Poussey and curls into the fetal position, embracing Poussey’s head. Brooks said she drew on the emotions and experiences of real-life women such as Diamond Reynolds, who witnessed the police shooting death of her partner Philando Castile, for this scene. The camera, which is positioned directly above the two women, pans out. It’s the last scene of the episode. The entire dynamic of Litchfield changes permanently.

From then on, Brooks depicts a person who is wracked with grief, depression and fury. Her movements become more self-protective, but also more defiant. She begins to use her size to command fear and respect. Tasha leads a prison riot that lasts for an entire season and strategizes how to make demands that would lead to substantive changes within Litchfield. There’s a sense of control that comes through in Brooks’ work in the later seasons of the show as she extinguishes the light that used to dance in Tasha’s eyes.

And then, for her efforts, Tasha is falsely blamed for the death of corrections officer Desi Piscatella, who was actually killed by a SWAT officer sent in to subdue the prisoners. Tasha is tried for murder and sentenced to live the rest of her days in Litchfield’s maximum security unit. Brooks has to sink deeper into the ugliest parts of herself. In season seven, it’s clear that Tasha doesn’t see what she has to live for. She’s become just as jaded and cruel and resigned as the guards — she has nothing left to lose. Finally released from solitary confinement, Brooks uses her body like a battering ram when she steps onto the prison yard, body-checking anyone who doesn’t have the good sense to get out of her way. Her movements become slower, and slower, as though she’s malingering toward death. Tasha now towers menacingly over the newly installed warden, Tamika (Susan Heyward), whom Tasha knew from her childhood neighborhood. The two women used to have a positive rapport. Not anymore.

Tasha is focused on finding a way to kill herself. She enters into an arrangement with Daya (Polanco), who is now running the drug ring in max, to secure enough drugs for a fatal overdose. But the enterprise is an expensive one, and Tasha begins working in the warden’s office again to earn the money to pay Daya.

But each day becomes more difficult to bear, especially when Tasha’s lawyer informs her that she’ll likely be stuck in prison forever, regardless of her innocence. Afterward, Tasha neatly arranges the few belongings in her cell. She twists the fabric she uses to make a noose. She loops the fabric around her neck, then launches her body away from the bed, feet still on the ground. For several seconds, Tasha struggles against her own body’s instincts for self-preservation. She’s crying and quietly whimpering. Slowly, desperate frustration takes over her face. She’s so miserable, and she can’t even let herself die.

Together with her castmates, Brooks has won three Screen Actors Guild Awards for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series. Still, her work on Orange has never received an individual Emmy nod. The scene in which she nearly hangs herself ought to change that.

The way she continues through the rest of season seven is just as masterful. When she doesn’t succeed in hanging herself, Tasha has to figure out how to live again, how to make it through prison knowing she’ll never experience freedom again. The journey Brooks charts back to the land of the living, to some semblance of her former self, is just as considered as the moments that take place right before Tasha thinks she’s ending her life. It’s like watching Orpheus slowly try to navigate his way out of hell.


Orange Is the New Black was Brooks’ first job after she graduated from Juilliard. It allowed the South Carolina native to showcase a range that other roles — like, say, voicing Charica in an episode of Elena of Avalor or Olive Blue in The Angry Birds Movie — have not.

During the show’s run, Brooks has become a natural at advocating for herself in an industry that tends to pigeonhole black women, especially dark-skinned, plus-size black women. Her Instagram feed is populated by photographs captioned with the hashtag #voiceofthecurves, and she’s used it to showcase herself as an enthusiastic fashion chameleon.

View this post on Instagram

Ever just wake up happy?

A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on Sep 19, 2017 at 6:39am PDT

In a recent post for the underwear and swimsuit brand Aerie, Brooks wrote, “Middle school and high school years were really hard for me. When it came to accepting my body it felt like a forever struggle that would never ease up. Now I know that my beauty is not determined by how skinny my waistline is or how perfect my skin is. The truth is I know I am beautiful, every day, outside and in. Every pimple, stretch mark, every roll and curve are real and unretouched. My beauty shines every day in every way. And yours does too.”

She made a splash in March 2016 when she appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine with plus-size fashionista Gabi Gregg and singers Jazmine Sullivan and Chrisette Michele. The magazine dubbed them “The Body Brigade.”

By far, her biggest fashion moments have come in frocks designed by Christian Siriano, who has made a name for himself dressing women whom Hollywood and the fashion industry have a tendency to ignore.

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The realest. @csiriano 🖤

A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on May 24, 2019 at 11:26am PDT

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Going into Monday like…💕 wearing @csiriano

A post shared by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on Aug 20, 2018 at 6:04am PDT

Now 29 and pregnant with her first child, Brooks is clearly thinking about what’s next. If there’s any justice in the world, it will be more than a series of roles as sassy, irritable government employees or obsequious caretakers to white leads who need assistance finding themselves. Although her other on-screen roles have been limited, she’s been able to soar onstage, securing a Tony nomination for her role as Sofia in a revival of The Color Purple.

This summer, Brooks turned down a movie role to play Beatrice in a Public Theater production of Much Ado About Nothing. The entire company, directed by Kenny Leon, was black. Thanks in part to her booming, soulful singing voice, she breathed life and wit and possibility into Beatrice. At one point, she scampered into the audience and settled into the lap of an audience member. There wasn’t a soul in the house who wasn’t completely charmed by her verve and confidence with Elizabethan English.

“I started thinking, What do I want? What would I be proud of on my résumé? and for me Beatrice was that,” Brooks told Vulture. “To me, getting to play this part is opening doors to young black women that look like me or even relate to me, so that was a no-brainer.

“I look forward to being the lead in a rom-com that has a fresh take. I look forward to being in an action film,” she continued. “I look forward to playing royalty.”

Danielle Brooks on life after OITNB: “I look forward to being the lead in a rom-com that has a fresh take. I look forward to being in an action film. I look forward to playing royalty.”

JoJo Whilden

I want so much for Orange Is the New Black to be more than an anomaly in the history of television. And in a lot of ways, television is different from what it was in 2013. Its success contributed to an atmosphere in which Pose could be welcomed and given a real production budget and an opportunity to do well. The older women of Orange Is the New Black made it easier to see how a show such as Grace and Frankie could thrive. Even short-lived projects such as the reboot of One Day at a Time and The Get Down owe some part of their existence to the revolutionary shift that Orange Is the New Black propelled.

Still, a 2017 study found that only 4.8% of television writers were black. It also revealed that the streaming network Hulu went an entire season without a single black writer employed on any of its original series. Whatever advances Orange ushered in are tenuous at best.

Just as Orange Is the New Black has offered new visions for what television can accomplish, let’s hope the same is true for Brooks. She’s had a terrific six years, but that’s not enough. She deserves a career that’s just as broad and challenging as her overflowing talents.

An ode to ‘Jet’ magazine’s ‘Beauty of the Week’ Parent company Johnson Publishing filed for bankruptcy last week

This was the point, my dad once told me, that I knew you were interested in women.

I was 6 years old, waiting for a haircut from our regular barber, Clarence. (To this day, I don’t know Clarence’s last name. He is my Cher.) My older brother and I took out about 20 of the pocket-sized weekly magazines, lined them up in a row and flipped each to Page 43 — it was almost always Page 43. We probably didn’t even need the table of contents; we knew exactly what we were looking for.

We found out on our own that we liked girls right there in between the pages of Jet magazine, in “Beauty of the Week.”

On April 9, Johnson Publishing Co., which published Jet magazine and its sister publication Ebony magazine from the 1940s until 2016, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois, effectively ending the black-centric publisher’s 77-year run.

In 2016, Johnson Publishing sold Jet and Ebony to private equity firm Clear View Group. Last week’s filing will not affect either of those publications. Nevertheless, the fate of Johnson Publishing brought back thoughts of “Beauty of the Week,” which placed just ahead of professional wrestling and Power Rangers on the Family Feud-like board of my pastimes.

Your level of fondness for “Beauty of the Week,” the magazine’s famous section dedicated to black women decked out in swimsuits, depends on your perspective.

For some black men, it was somewhere between adoration of the black female body … and Lawd Have Mercy. Whether on the bus, in the barbershop, on the end table at your grandmother’s house or even in prison cells, from teenagers to middle-aged men, some among us went straight to the centerfold of Jet as soon as we set our eyes on the pint-size glossy cover. Black boys and men (and women, too) ogled the pretty brown-skinned women with the voluptuous curves and breathtaking smiles. And while it wasn’t Penthouse or Maxim’s Hot 100, Johnson Publishing exploited black bodies and sexuality, sometimes printing photos that straddled the line between tasteful and lustful.

At the same time, “Beauty of the Week” brought black female bodies into the mainstream, said Cornell University professor Noliwe M. Rooks, whose research focuses on beauty, race and fashion. As a pushback against pinup girls in other magazines of the early 20th century, Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson created a domain for black women and their sexuality. These images were a sharp contrast to the all-white bodies presented in other publications. And though Jet was never known for featuring plus-size women, its models came in different colors, sizes and shapes — the antithesis of the blond bombshell.

“They’re not stick figures,” Rooks said.

Stick figures they were not. At the time, I was way too young to understand the meaning of sex or even what it was, but I could somehow recognize black beauty (among other things) and how it differed from other suggestive images on television. Sure, there were the hidden dirty magazines around the shop of my dad’s trucking company, or the always-weakened-signaled Channels 32 and 33 on the “black box,” but I just knew there was something different about the women on the 5 1/8-by-7 3/8-inch pieces of paper.

Former Jet editor-in-chief Mira Lowe came to the publication during its twilight in 2007 but grew up reading the magazine, admiring the risks Johnson Publishing was willing to take with black women featured so prominently on its covers and throughout its pages. Before Jet and Ebony, black women simply didn’t appear on magazine covers. Vogue (1974), Glamour (1968), Life (1969) and Playboy (1971) didn’t put black women on their covers until almost 20 years after Jet’s first issue in 1951.

“Jet helped with the penetration in the black community,” Lowe said. “[It] laid the groundwork and was the pioneer to what we see today in mainstream magazines.”

Johnson Publishing featured black women prominently on its covers and between its pages through the years.

Jet Magazine

Dudley Brooks, who was Jet and Ebony’s photo director from 2007 to 2014, said Jet was forward-thinking at the time in choosing to showcase black women in a way they hadn’t been before.

The early incarnation of “Beauty of the Week” debuted in 1952 in the centerfold. One of the first models was Florida-born Ruth King, who was working a clerical job in a New York City court when she appeared in the Aug. 14 issue. As would come to be Jet’s trademark, King’s full-page portrait was accompanied by a short bio and body size measurements that Sir Mix-a-Lot would rap about some 40 years later.

Outside of King, it wasn’t just aspiring models looking to be the next “It” girl appearing in “Beauty of the Week.” There were women majoring in speech at historically black colleges and universities, beauty consultants from California, and aspiring politicians and musicians. There was Beverly the waitress, Denise the inhalation therapist and Noni, who liked to deep-sea fish and Jet Ski. These women were everyday girls who were given the opportunity to show the world what “normal” looks like.

But there were also those who used “Beauty of the Week” as a launching pad. Former television personality and author Janet Langhart Cohen graced the section in 1966. She told Jet in 1986 that it’s “where I got my start.” Ja’net Dubois, who played wisecracking neighbor Willona Woods on Good Times, appeared in 1977. The most famous of the bunch was blaxploitation film actress Pam Grier, who was set to star in 1971’s The Big Doll House when she posed for the magazine in a two-piece bathing suit in Chicago.

“I think it was just after I finished Black Mama White Mama, and things were starting to blow up, and they said, ‘You’ve got to do Jet and Ebony,’ ” Grier told The Undefeated in 2016. “You can see I am so rough. I just seemed not like the beauties of today: toned and tanned and shiny. I was ashy, no makeup, my hair was all over the place.”

While “Beauty of the Week” was an opportunity to uplift and portray black women in a non-disrespectful manner, at the end of the day it was what it was.

“It was eye candy,” said Brooks, now the deputy director of photography at The Washington Post. “Things that used to be considered normal or accepted widely years ago move on.”

The women, for the most part, were photographed solely in swimsuits and, from 1959-93, were accompanied by their body measurements.

The photos have been called a “quick dose of random, incongruous cheesecake” meant to offset the more serious news stories in the magazine, no more obvious than in 1955 when Jet published the gruesome images from Emmett Till’s funeral just 26 pages ahead of 15-year-old Judith Stewart in a two-piece bathing suit.

The merits of presenting black women in next to no clothing can be argued every day of the week, but, at the same time, the editors and art directors appeared ahead of their time in the mid-20th century, showcasing women of various skin tones, waist sizes and hair lengths. A 2011 research study found that Jet presents “a larger female body size ideal … contrary to mainstream Caucasian media’s practices,” which may reflect a “broader definition of female attractiveness.” From Saartjie Baartman to former first lady Michelle Obama to Serena Williams, black women’s bodies have been ridiculed, mocked and simultaneously ignored for centuries, but Jet (and older publications such as Tan) had the audacity to put black women front and center for the world to see.

There’s not much I remember about my childhood. I vaguely recall learning to ride my bike or almost getting lost at a Six Flags theme park or dressing up for Halloween. But “Beauty of the Week” is one of those things that sits in the back of your memory, never being forgotten. I haven’t picked up a physical copy of the magazine since the early 2000s, but I can envision being in my grandparents’ living room as everyone else watched television, wading through the first 42 pages of the latest Jet, anticipating which pretty woman I’d get to see that week, like an adult L.O.L. Surprise! doll box. (Jet switched to a digital-only operation in 2014 and hasn’t posted a “Beauty of the Week” on its website in more than a year.)

When I was commissioned to write this story, I was told by my editor to keep it classy and tasteful. But crossing that line never crossed my mind. “Beauty of the Week” didn’t make me the man I am today, in that clichéd kind of way, but I can say without a doubt that it helped me learn to appreciate and respect black women and their bodies.

And now, the dissolution of Johnson Publishing means a part of Jet’s soul is gone forever.

And with it, a part of my adolescence.

Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral, a photographer and a photo that still makes us cry The story behind Moneta Sleet’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo

The proverb says that April showers bring May flowers. T.S. Eliot preferred the darker side, proclaiming April the “cruelest month.” For journalists, April showers can also mean Pulitzer Prizes.

This April also marks 50 years since the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, and thus 50 years since the publication of a famous photograph showing the grieving widow of the fallen martyr. Coretta Scott King mourns at the funeral of her husband, her little daughter Bernice resting her head upon her mother’s lap.

Moneta Sleet, Jr.

Getty Images

That iconic black-and-white image of the veiled widow was taken by a man named Moneta Sleet Jr. (For the record, he used a Nikon camera with a 35 mm lens, with Kodak Tri-x film.) The following year, 1969, Sleet received news that he had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. At that moment, Sleet became the first black man to win a Pulitzer and the first African-American journalist to win one as an individual rather than as part of a journalism team.

(The poet Gwendolyn Brooks won the prize for literature in 1950.)

It was in 1947, remember, that Jackie Robinson (whom Sleet also photographed) broke the color line in baseball. It took another 22 years before a black man crossed that line in the Pulitzer competition.

From 1955 until his death in 1996, Sleet worked for the Johnson Publishing Co. His images, especially in Jet and Ebony magazines, documented every step of the civil rights movement. Beyond that, he captured the work and achievements of black celebrities, performers and politicians in every corner of the country — but also in Africa and around the globe.

Sleet’s eyes were not on a Pulitzer Prize but on a higher calling: to document the life and times of a marginalized and persecuted people in all aspects of their lives, through triumphs, troubles and tragedies.

The historical collection Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs describes Sleet’s most famous image and how it came to be captured on April 9, 1968:

“It has been just five days since a sniper’s bullet killed the civil rights leader. Coretta Scott King has discovered that the pool of journalists covering her husband’s funeral does not include a black photographer. She sends word: If Moneta Sleet is not allowed into the church, there will be no photographers.”

Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., comforts her youngest daughter Bernice, 5, during services in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, 4/9.

In a Johnson Publishing collection of Sleet’s work titled Special Moments in African-American History, 1955-1996: The Photographs of Moneta Sleet, Jr., Ebony Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize Winner, Sleet offers his own, more modest version of events:

“There was complete pandemonium. Nothing was yet organized because the people from SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] were still in a state of shock. We had the world press descending upon Atlanta, plus the FBI, who were investigating the assassination.

“We were trying to get an arrangement to shoot in the church. They were going to pool it. Normally, the pool meant news services: Life, Time and Newsweek. When the pool was selected, there were no black photographers from the black media on it. Lerone Bennett and I got in touch with Mrs. King through Andy Young. She said if somebody from Johnson Publishing is not on the pool, there will be no pool.

“We … made arrangements with AP that they would process the black and white film immediately after the service and put it on the wire. Later, I found out which shot they sent out. … The day of the funeral, Bob Johnson, the executive editor of Jet, had gotten to the church and he beckoned for me and said, ‘There’s a spot right here.’ It was a wonderful spot.

“What I noticed … this was prior to the funeral — was the little girl fidgeting there on her mother’s lap. I could relate to that, being a father and having a child close to the same age. Mrs. King was sitting there, stoic and stately, but it was specifically the child who I was thinking about at the time.”

In a profession whose practitioners are expected to bring a certain detachment to their work, Sleet saw no reason to apologize for his commitment to the cause of racial equality or for his emotional involvement with those he photographed.

“I wasn’t there as an objective reporter,” he once said. “I had something to say and was trying to show one side of it. We didn’t have any problems finding the other side.” The side of racism and intolerance.

At the same time, his professional standards gave him the foundation to create his best work. He said of covering the King funeral: “Professionally, I was doing what I had been trained to do, and I was glad of that because I was very involved emotionally. If I hadn’t been there working, I would have been off crying like everybody else.”

In the Johnson collection of his work, there is a beautiful photo of Sleet and his family. They are beaming. His daughter sits on the floor holding telegrams of congratulations. Sleet is holding his Pulitzer Prize. This is from the May 22, 1969, edition of Jet magazine:

“You must be joking” were the words Moneta Sleet uttered when informed that he had won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize in news feature photography. “I knew that it was a good photograph, but I knew there were lots of good photographs in the running. So, there’s no need of my lying, I was quite happy to win the award. And my wife, Juanita, and the kids, Michael, Gregory and Lisa, were thrilled.”

At the time, magazine features were not eligible for Pulitzer Prizes. Sleet’s image became eligible because of its distribution by The Associated Press.

The Rev. Kenny Irby, a veteran photojournalism leader and a former faculty member at the Poynter Institute, knew Sleet and looked up to him as a role model and mentor. Via email, he responded to questions about Sleet and his legacy:

As an African-American, a photojournalist, a pastor, and a father, what do you see when you look at the famous photo taken by Moneta Sleet?

I see great pain and promise in this photograph. Moneta gave me a copy in 1996 after the Olympic Games, which was his last major assignment. For me, it’s the obvious pain for the murdered martyr for justice and peace. I see the promise in his daughter Bernice, who would pick up the baton of her father’s work. And I see the promise affirmed by Moneta’s Pulitzer Prize, an honor which paved a path for me and generations of other photojournalists.

This is a black-and-white photograph. What do you see technically that interests you?

The elegance of the black-and-white composition has long transfixed me. I love the stark white dress of Bernice, juxtaposed against the black dress and glove. Then there are shimmering shades of gray that flow from the veil throughout the photograph. Yet, the sadness of the eyes in the photograph says all that needs to be said.

Access is so important to any successful photojournalist. What did it take for a black photographer in the 1960s to get access to important social and political events?

That’s a really great question. It took courage and connections. It was actually Coretta who took the bold stand and insisted that Moneta would be the pool photographer while there was one other photographer inside. Flip Schulke, who was white, also had a relationship with Dr. King.

For Jet and Ebony magazines, Sleet covered the civil rights movement, issues related to Africa, the black social and celebrity scene. How would you summarize his contribution to journalism?

Simply put, he was one of the trailblazers — a tremendously kind human being, a great journalist and nurturing mentor to many.