Laverne Cox, Shaun Ross and Amber Riley speak their truth to N.C. A&T students ‘Love the Skin You’re In’ discussion touched hearts and minds

“Love yourself … embrace who you are … be true to yourself” are examples of clichés that are often heard. However, what do those statements really mean? And how can someone begin to love themselves if they struggle to receive love from others?

Some of those answers were unpacked this week as North Carolina A&T hosted Love the Skin You’re In, an event that was part of the chancellor’s speaker series. It was groundbreaking because of the diversity of the panelists, who included Shaun Ross, Amber Riley and Laverne Cox.

Cox is a transgender actress known for her role as Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black. Ross is the first male model to represent albinism, and Riley is a plus-size actress best known for her role as Mercedes Jones on the TV series Glee.

“I am very grateful that this event happened,” said Amara Johnson, a senior multimedia journalism student who is an active member of Prism, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-plus organization on A&T’s campus.

“I believe many things were intentional when planning. One example would be students who are in Prism, the LGBTQ+ organization, had reserved seating in the front rows. This was such a big deal for us because normally we are an afterthought. Also, this particular event was historic because it was the first time a transperson has been invited to speak on campus.”

The panelists tackled topics centered on self-concept, self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-confidence and self-love.

They opened up talking about their differences and how they knew they were different.

Participants in the Love The Skin You’re In panel included (from left to right) Laverne Cox, Shaun Ross, Amber Riley and moderator Raushannah Johnson-Verwayne.

Jamar Plunkett

“I never truly knew I was different until I stepped out into the world,” said Ross as he discussed the challenges he faced having albinism while going to school with kids who were also African American, but had darker skin that his.

“I only knew I was different when I went to the beach and got sunburn,” he joked.

Dealing with their differences

Besides their differences, they discussed dealing with the shame of them.

“Shame is an intense feeling of unbelief. Shame is instead of thinking, ‘this is a mistake,’ you say to yourself, ‘I am a mistake,’ ” Cox explained.

They talked about not only acceptance of oneself but acceptance of one’s accomplishments.

Ross said that for a long time he was being humble to a fault. Whenever he would accomplish something, he would say to himself, “What is next?”

“Sometimes I don’t feel what I’ve done has been worth it because of my past,” Ross said. But now he’s in a place where he recites to himself, “remember where you were, not what you want.”

Not only can self-criticism be a heavy burden, but the criticism from others can be, too.

“It doesn’t go away once you get in the magazines,” Cox said. “It actually gets worse because you have more eyes on you. If you do not know who you are. If you do not have a sense of your inherent worthiness because you are a child of God, what other people say about you will destroy you.”

“I got to the point where I felt like I was drowning. I felt like I didn’t know myself. I felt like I wasn’t in my own body. Does anybody feel that way? … But eventually you will get to a point where survival mode kicks in. It is inside of us to survive.” — Amber Riley

The importance of self-confidence and how it is crucial to surviving in life was another topic.

“I got to the point where I felt like I was drowning,” Riley said. “I felt like I didn’t know myself. I felt like I wasn’t in my own body. Does anybody feel that way?”

Several people in the audience raised their hands, symbolizing they, too, could relate to her struggles with self-esteem.

“But eventually you will get to a point where survival mode kicks in,” Riley continued. “It is inside of us to survive.”

“Listening to them talk about their journeys to self-acceptance reminded me that I need to be patient with myself as I embark on my own journey,” Johnson said. “To paraphrase a quote that Amber Riley said that stuck with me: ‘Self-love is a journey, not a destination.’ ”

Moderator Dr. Raushannah Johnson-Verwayne asked the three to discuss some tangible things they had gained on their journey of self-acceptance.

“I think that one of the most tangible things that you could ever receive is the truth. The more I got older, the more I was able to live in my truth. So, living in your truth is one of the most tangible things you can ever have,” Johnson-Verwayne said.

The LGBTQ+ community on campus

The event shed light on the support and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community at N.C. A&T.

“I feel like this event contributed to the growth of the LGBTQ+ community on campus by opening these conversations up and opening these dialogues up and letting people’s humanity be seen,” said Morgan Turner, a junior psychology student and member of Prism.

“Being able to have examples of people you see on social media who are famous and who are in all these different identities telling me their story goes a longer way than what Prism and other students can do at times that are just out of our hands,” Turner said.

Asia Hill is the president of Prism, whose purpose is to support members of the LGBTQ+ community on campus.

“The goal of Prism is not only to make LGBT+ students feel safe,” Hill said. “However, it is also to make LGBT students visible on campus and to make other people see how advocating for the LGBT community can look and how it can help not only yourself in your own community but also communities you don’t even know about and people you haven’t even reached.

“The stories that they told and the energy that they had helps with the advocacy piece,” Hill continued. “There are people who aren’t LGBT that still came just for the sake that it’s a chancellor’s event. They got a story that they wouldn’t hear before, and think that helps people understand the LGBT community and understand just the people around him.”

Conveying the importance of therapy was Johnson-Verwayne, who is a licensed clinical psychologist, saying, “Everyone should have a therapist.”

They stressed academics and relationships as well.

“It’s crazy that your own thoughts and your feelings come through somebody else’s experiences and I think that’s what this event captured tonight.” — Prism president Asia Hill

“Also be sure to watch the energy around you and watch the energy that you’re putting out to other people,” even in college. “The problem is people are so hung up on where people are right now than where they’re going,” said Ross.

Some students said the evening was valuable and they were grateful they were understood, walking away with valuable life tips.

“I think the program was absolutely amazing,” said Aaron Johnson, a senior liberal studies student. “Being a gay black male myself, it took me a while to find self-acceptance and what the panelists pretty much talked about, I could relate to. It felt like everything just resonated with me deep down in my spirit.”

“There was something Laverne said about when she’s feeling anxious she finds the space in her body where she feels the most anxiety and subsequently finds the space in her body where she feels the least anxious and it helps her get through the anxiety step by step,” Hill said. “That to me was groundbreaking because I never heard of anything like that and the physicality of it was really life-changing. It’s crazy that your own thoughts and your feelings come through somebody else’s experiences and I think that’s what this event captured tonight.”

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.

View this post on Instagram

The realest. @csiriano 🖤

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

View this post on Instagram

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.

As 2019’s new fall TV shows come into focus, more black antihero stories need to be told In putting black characters who dwelled in darkness on screen, ABC and others expanded the meaning of mainstream blackness

TV’s major networks made their upfront announcements recently, and there are some interesting shows coming to screens this fall.

Saturday Night Live vet Kenan Thompson finally lands a starring vehicle with NBC’s The Kenan Show, a family sitcom about a single dad. ABC’s black-ish spinoff mixed-ish stars Tika Sumpter and centers on an interracial hippie family in the 1980s. Megalyn Echikunwoke is one of the leads on Not Just Me from Fox. It’s about a woman coming to grips with discovering her father sired multiple children. Sunnyside is a Kal Penn-driven NBC sitcom with a multiethnic cast about a former New York City councilman who helps immigrants living in Queens, New York. Folake Olowofoyeku stars with Billy Gardell in Bob Hearts Abishola, a CBS sitcom about a middle-aged white guy who has a heart attack and falls for his Nigerian cardiac nurse. “Hardy har har.”

“Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

Considering returning shows such as The Last O.G. and the ever-popular black-ish on traditional networks, there seems to be a resurgence in sitcoms as it pertains to black programming. That isn’t incidental; networks have only recently been embracing of dramas driven by black leads. And that aversion spoke to how those networks saw black imagery and how it is received by white audiences. We had to fight to get black antiheroes on the small screen.

So often in American pop culture, dysfunction in characters has been used as a parallel for the wider human experience — and that dysfunction is regularly white and male. No matter how many snitching wiseguys or horse-killing compadres Tony Soprano strangled, bludgeoned or shot, no matter how many rivals, partners and associates Walter White murdered or manipulated, it was all supposed to show us something about the human condition.

As is the function of privilege, white storytellers not only have the benefit of larger, wider platforms but also of not having to navigate racism’s dizzying maze of double standards and slanted expectations. White criminality on screen could say something about humanity; black criminality on screen was expected to say something about black people. From the ‘hood movies of the early 1990s to that other beloved HBO drama The Wire, if bad black people were at the center of the story, there would be a lot of hand-wringing about what the portrayal was going to yield in a culture that undoubtedly relishes demonizing black folks.

That burden of portrayal and mainstream platforms’ indifference toward black creators and audiences meant that, at least on the small screen, dark or dramatic black content was suddenly in short supply. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as dysfunctional white people became the centerpiece of American television, black shows nearly disappeared from the popular landscape. Even during the beloved “heyday” of black TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s, scripted black TV tended to be predominantly family sitcoms. The few shows that were still prominent in the 2000s remained PG-friendly half-hour comedies — until Scandal.

The hit show Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes (left) and starring Kerry Washington (right), debuted in 2012 and announced the arrival of a new era in black television.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

Debuting to strong ratings back in 2012 and becoming the No. 1 show in its time slot, Shonda Rhimes’ hit announced the arrival of a new era in black television. The show was the first major contemporary drama with a black female lead. In centering on a complex black woman who was both obviously brilliant at what she did but who was wrestling with personal demons and character dysfunctions that would threaten all that she’d built, that prime-time hit changed what popular black television in the “prestige TV”-driven age could look like. Characters such as Olivia Pope of Scandal, Paper Boi of Atlanta, Ghost St. Patrick of Power, Taystee of Orange is the New Black and Cookie Lyon of Empire would be driven by drama, heightened spectacle, suspense, surrealism and provocative storytelling. They showcased intriguing characters of questionable morals but undeniable charisma and riveting conflict. Of course, these were all very different kinds of shows, but they all highlighted the development of a new wave.

The black TV experience of the 2010s has not been defined by sitcoms or reality shows, although both have remained consistently popular. No, much like the wider culture, so much of our television experience has been driven by melodramas, crime shows and nighttime soaps. And in putting black characters on screen who dared to dwell in darkness, it’s helped expand the scope of mainstream black content. “Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

But that doesn’t mean disparities have disappeared.

The Starz series Power became a surprise hit in 2014 when it debuted. A glitzy urban series about a drug kingpin attempting to climb the social ladder of Manhattan’s elite, the show is the biggest on the network, but the writing and acting aren’t quite at the level of top-tier television dramas, and the tone keeps its storytelling just shy of grim, forgoing (or negating) suspense for shock and salaciousness. And while a character such as Lucious Lyon was always portrayed as the devil in a suede jacket — and there is no denying Cookie Lyon is no angel either — Fox’s Empire relies more on pomp and melodrama than actual suspense, casting the show’s darkness against a blinged-out haze of camp and histrionics. There still seems to be a dearth of black-themed shows on television willing to fully commit to taking their protagonists to an unsettling place, one that, while compelling, also doesn’t assuage the audience’s discomfort.

Taraji P. Henson (left) and Terrence Howard (right) star in the Fox hit Empire as Cookie and Lucious Lyon.

Photo by FOX via Getty Images

And Netflix’s ever-popular ensemble prison drama Orange Is the New Black has showcased a diverse set of black female characters: inmates of varying backgrounds thrust together in a minimum security prison. The show highlights personalities that can be as sympathetic and relatable as some are manipulative and murderous. But the acclaimed series was initially marketed as the story of an upper-crust white woman plucked out of her pampered world and now doing time — something it eventually subverted, to be sure. But did being pushed as such help ensure that it wouldn’t be received as a niche “black show” by audiences and critics?

The May 19 series finale of Game of Thrones was the talk of pop culture, as HBO’s gargantuan hit wrapped eight seasons of ice zombies, dragons, brothels, torture and incest with a controversial last episode that underwhelmed many and confounded others. But the better finale that night was from the cable network’s half-hour thriller-comedy Barry, a stunning little show that ended its second season in emotionally gripping (and shockingly violent) fashion. While obviously not the grand blockbuster that HBO has had in Thrones, Barry has proved to be another major critical success for the network, with star Bill Hader earning the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series Emmy last year for his work on the show, which he executive produces with Alec Berg.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting.

On the show, Saturday Night Live alum Hader gets to indulge his serious side and delivers some stellar performances. As hitman turned aspiring actor Barry Berkman, Hader’s everyman persona and comedic talents are still evident, but it’s secondary to a starkly stellar dramatic performance as the emotionally fraught, reluctant killer. The show deftly balances the more screwball moments with searing tension that has all the suspense of a David Fincher thriller. When the violence happens, it’s often swift and brutal — and without a wink or nod. Barry’s genuine desire to change his life sits parallel with his more rage-filled tendencies, and that inner conflict often leads to someone catching a bullet.

Popular shows Orange Is the New Black, Empire and Power will all be concluding soon. The final season of Orange Is the New Black hits Netflix in July, with Fox’s hip-hop soap opera and Starz’s 50 Cent-produced hit ending their runs with their upcoming respective sixth seasons. As such, we will be saying goodbye to some beloved on-screen bad people in the next several months. Hopefully, when we look back at these characters and shows, we’ll see what was only the beginning of a more diverse era in black programming. With upcoming shows such as For Life (described by ABC as “a fictional serialized legal and family drama about a prisoner who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit”) and returning series such as Snowfall and How to Get Away With Murder, black antiheroes are still on our screens — but networks shouldn’t let such shows fall to the periphery.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting. Our deepest dysfunctions can make for compelling truths on screen. Our dark tales are as affirming as any, and they only added to the broadening of our on-screen identity. If these wildly different shows have one common legacy, that is certainly it. And that’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.

Samira Wiley misses ‘Orange Is the New Black‘ and loves ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ — but also wants to have fun The Maryland native has a penchant for characters who are right on time

Growing up in Samira Wiley’s home, you could tell which day of the week it was by which type of shows were on television.

If it was Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday — her days — the vibe was MTV, VH1 or BET. On Mondays and Fridays, when her younger brother Joshua ruled the remote control, it was all about ESPN. Home was Prince George’s County, Maryland (she grew up in Fort Washington), and it was there that her love of performance and all things entertainment, with a pinch of athleticism, was fostered. When she and Joshua weren’t duking it out over the television, they were changing in and out of sports uniforms, hitting their respective playing fields and tearing it up in the name of competitive sports.

Wiley ran track — cross country. And she played soccer. And basketball. And for just one day, she recalls, her index finger against the side of her face, she played lacrosse. “Me and my brother,” she said, laughing, “we used to play right forward and left forward for the soccer team we were on. … Those were the glory days of my athletic prowess.”

Samira Wiley, a Maryland native, has starred in two TV series that are part of the cultural zeitgeist: Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

André Chung for The Undefeated

She’s laughing because her days as a would-be superstar athlete are all behind her — unless someone comes a-calling with a sports role that needs to be brought to life. By now, everyone knows that she spent 50 episodes starring as the beloved Poussey on Netflix’s addictive and groundbreaking Orange Is the New Black. Her character’s demise struck a chord.

“For so long, I just wanted to be an actor,” said Wiley, sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. “When I first got my job on Orange, I was bartending. It was still like a dream. I entered the public consciousness in this show. It … defined me. We talk about getting typecast in my industry, and I didn’t want that to happen after Poussey.”

“It’s just sort of a happy accident that the two shows I’ve been on have permeated our culture in this way.”

The character was killed by a prison guard, which sparked a protest at the fictional female detention facility. The fallout around the killing of Poussey came at a time when national headlines felt eerily familiar and #BlackLivesMatter had perhaps reached peak battle cry. “She was someone I fell in love with,” said Wiley, “and lot of people offered me roles on other things [that] felt [like] Poussey.” Poussey was a young gay woman who made some mistakes and landed in a federal prison. Post-Poussey, the Juilliard-trained Wiley wanted to flex her acting muscles in a way than the world had yet to see.

Wiley says landing her role as Poussey on Orange Is the New Black was like a dream. “When I first got my job on Orange, I was bartending. … I entered the public consciousness in this show. It … defined me.”

André Chung for The Undefeated

And now she’s entering season two of Hulu’s acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale, a series that many critics say mirrors the Trump era. The show is set in a not-so-far-off future, after the U.S. government has been overthrown by a totalitarian, Christian theonomy. Pure coincidence, considering that the series is based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel and the series was filming before the 2016 presidential election. The women in Atwood’s fictional world are subjected to misogyny in a patriarchal society, but over the first season viewers watched them fight for individualism and independence. This all seems very in line with the current political climate and the brave outpouring of women fighting against sexual harassment and assault in the #MeToo era.

“To be honest, I didn’t want to do it,” said Wiley. “Because specifically … of my own journey with my queerness, and that also being a part of the typecast, I didn’t want to keep playing gay characters. I wanted people to see me as other things.” Last year Wiley married Lauren Morelli, whom she met while working on Orange. Morelli is a writer on the show. “I was unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood,” said Wiley, “but my wife wasn’t. [Atwood] is one of her favorite authors. [Lauren] was like, ‘If you’re gonna be gay for somebody, you need to be gay for this. I know you’re out here trying to do your thing and be all the colors of the rainbow, but if you’re gonna do it, this is the one.’ ”

Atwood’s world was white. The series creator, Bruce Miller, wanted to diversify near-future New England. “The decision to have people of color in this world stems … from him saying, ‘I don’t want to make a f—ing TV show with a bunch of white people.’ That’s literally where it stems from … like, ‘I don’t want to be a creator in this [kind of] world right now, even if this is the book.’ ” She says that was nice to hear.

“It’s just sort of a happy accident that the two shows I’ve been on have permeated our culture in this way,” said Wiley. “They’re relevant. They’re saying something that society needs to hear. I think [my future] is about … keeping that voice that’s relevant but also having a fun career.

“I’m very blessed, and I’m happy to be here. … I got into acting because I have a wonderful sense of play. … Sometimes I want to make sure that I remember for myself that, yeah, you also want to play and go put on a wig and be a character that you haven’t been before.”

And maybe one day she’ll wear a sports uniform again.

‘Orange is the New Black’ star Dascha Polanco talks Michael Jordan and her journey as a single mom ‘We all have our own hardships that act as a piece of motivation for us to push forward’

The 35-year-old Orange is the New Black (OITNB) star Dascha Polanco grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and was an athlete in high school. But she hit the basketball court last week in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game playing alongside teammates Jamie Foxx, Common, Quavo of Migos and WNBA player Stefanie Dolson.

“I love that there are two women, Katie [Nolan] and Rachel [Nichols], coaching the [NBA All-Star] Celebrity Game,” said the actress who was on Team Clippers, the winning team. “I was very competitive when I used to play softball in school, so I was excited when the opportunity to play [in the Celebrity Game] came up.”

Polanco is best known for her role as Dayanara “Daya” Diaz in the hit Emmy- and Screen Actors Guild Award-winning Netflix show OITNB. Her first taste of Hollywood was in the independent film, Gimme Shelter, starring opposite Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson. Her big- and small-screen credits include Joy, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, The Perfect Match and The Cobbler to name a few.

Born in the Dominican Republic, she emigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl with her parents and became a citizen in late 2013. Borrowing the words of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind, “Ima make it by any means, I got a pocketful of dreams,” Polanco didn’t sit on her dreams just because she was a young single mom living with the help of government assistance. She didn’t let the stereotypes of a label define what she could or couldn’t do. She went back to school to become a nurse at New York City’s Hunter College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Then she began working as a hospital administrator at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

While studying nursing, Polanco signed up for acting classes at BIH Studios, where she eventually got signed to a talent agency and later landed OITNB in 2012, which changed her world forever.

The fierce and bold mother of two spoke with The Undefeated about why Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time despite her New York team allegiances, how she defies labels and uses fear to tap into an even stronger hustle, what it means to be an Afro-Latina in America and how overcoming insecurities is an everyday job.


Growing up in Brooklyn, are you a die-hard Knicks fan or have you become a Nets fan since they’ve become the Brooklyn Nets (previously the New Jersey Nets)?

I root for all New York teams. I grew up a Knicks fan and have so many memories watching the games with my family. As long as the Nets are the Brooklyn Nets, I’ll cheer for them too.

Who is the GOAT athlete?

Michael Jordan, hands down. And yes, I know I’m a Knicks fan, but MJ all the way. When I worked in the healthcare field, I had Jordan quotes all over my office. He is the epitome of dedication, perseverance and beating the odds. In my son’s room, I even have the poster of MJ with his arms stretched out.

What is your favorite Michael Jordan quote?

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” You can relate that quote to any situation in life. When I used to work in the operating room, it took a team of surgeons and nurses to get the job done, [and now as an actress, it takes so many people with different roles to make everything come together].

Where did your motivation come from as a young single mom going back to school to become a nurse, and then later taking acting classes while still working in the health care field?

We all have our own hardships that act as a piece of motivation for us to push forward. I remember living in a shelter and using food stamps and getting treated like a piece of crap every time I went into the city for welfare. That treatment made me feel ashamed and embarrassed, but it also encouraged me to want to have my own and be independent. I could have chosen to do nothing [and accept the stereotypes associated with the labels that were given to me], but I chose to go back to school. No label can define me. I’m Dascha and I am a force.

What’s something you didn’t think you’d have to adjust to as a celebrity?

I never was able to buy things because I wanted to; it was always because I had to. Now I have the choice and can treat myself, but I even struggle with that because I’ve become conditioned to be fearful of losing [what I work for]. But I’ve gotten to the place where I’ve learned to embrace what I deserve.

When you were working at the hospital, why didn’t you tell anyone that you were also filming Orange Is The New Black?

Where I come from, we don’t say the things that we’re working on. [Sometimes] people don’t want to see you grow. When I’m working, I don’t speak about it. I just let it show for itself. All of my life, I’ve gotten negative feedback when I’ve said I wanted to be a singer, actress or a dancer. I’d hear, “Ahh, girl, that’s so hard … I don’t think you’re going to make it doing that.” So I don’t give them the opportunity to put that negative energy into the universe. I don’t have to tell everyone my goals, because at the end of the day, everyone wants to succeed but no one wants to see anyone else succeed. I stay quiet and keep my goals in my control and my protection.

How have you overcome insecurities?

It’s a process that you ideally try to overcome, but you’re always working on it. There are days that I feel ugly and fat, and I have to tell myself to cut it the hell out. I started acknowledging what I’m feeling and exploring why I’m feeling that way. I look back at my experiences growing up and it’s rooted from not feeling like I’m enough. [And in the present day] maybe it’s that I’m around a group of sophisticated people and I feel I don’t talk as proper as them or I’m at a table with models and I’m the only one eating bread. Those insecurities come about when I’m so focused on everything else and I’m not taking the time to be aware of myself. So now I stop, meditate, stop again and go.

Where does your courage come from?

It might be genetic because my mom [who died at 46 years old] was one courageous woman emigrating [from the Dominican Republic], and just her tenacity in every situation. My mom and dad are my heroes and have taught me to take advantage of the now in life.

I recently booked a film that I never thought that I would get. [I can’t say what it is yet.] It’s a small role, but it’s with someone that I’ve always wanted to work with. I was so nervous that even my armpits were sweating. But I took a moment before I went on set and reminded myself, I am here because I deserve to be. You were brought to America by your parents to do whatever your heart wants to pursue, so take this moment to have the power and courage to take advantage of this moment. Fear is just one layer before your breakthrough. Give me a little bit of fear so I can beat it up and come out even stronger.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latina in America?

There’s these labels and terms that we’ve created so people could understand their roots, what they identify with and where they come from. Even though I’m considered Latina, I’m really a Caribbean woman because I have African roots too. I love being a combination of pure melanin and having exaggerations in my body and movement.

But sometimes these labels are just a way of grouping individuals and putting people against each other — where it becomes about exclusivity instead of bringing people together. Growing up, the black community embraced me but not as much as I embraced them. It was always, “You’re not black, you’re Spanish,” but culturally I connected with them. It’s always been that constant battle but a lot of people feel that way. Even without racial differences, not everyone feels like they’re American too.

Tell me about your work with the D.R.E.A.M (Dominican Republic Education and Mentoring) Project?

I always wanted to do something for the youth in my home country, so I fell in love the D.R.E.A.M Project. The organization is kind of like a YMCA where the kids get education and job training. A lot of the kids are orphans and are growing up through hard times.

Together we’ve launched a theater arts program for these children. The talent that comes through these kids out of hardship is just amazing. The kids play instruments and are so good at so young. I knew we had to create a space to feed their talent so it could be used as a way to express themselves [and heal]. D.R.E.A.M Project has created a school [that they’ve named after me] and now these kids get to write their own script and tell their own story through performance.

Taye Diggs is working with us now too. I encourage people to take a trip to the Dominican Republic and share moments with these kids. It’s truly a remarkable experience.

In ‘Orange is the New Black’ season five, the show takes its darkest turn yet ‘Orange’ joins the ranks of shows and films that will come to define the Trump era despite being conceived before it

This article discusses the plot and details of the fifth season of Orange is the New Black in its entirety. Spoilers abound.

Remember the good ol’ days, when Orange is the New Black could insert itself into consideration for the comedy category of the Emmys and, despite its hourlong episode run time, such a move was considered reasonable?

Because after all, it was funny, with its satirical look at a specific type of clueless white liberalism — the kind that subsists on a steady diet of Whole Foods, goop and This American Life. We could all laugh at Piper Chapman’s (Taylor Schilling) naïve assumptions about what life would be like in a minimum-security prison and whom she would be able to trust. Orange is the New Black began as a show that ushered in breakout stardom for Laverne Cox and a national conversation about trans people and the injustices they face. It had a hopeful bent, one that whispered the possibility of one day being able to say, this is how life once was.

Granted, that world ceased to exist the moment Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) was suffocated to death in a chokehold by a correctional officer at Litchfield in season four. Like the titular character of Poussey’s favorite book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we are down the rabbit hole now. Season five of Orange doesn’t soften the fall either. The inmates at Litchfield can’t see much beyond this time, time and more time behind their bars — any hope of this is how life once was has morphed into this is how life is and will continue to be, far, far further into the future than we ever imagined.

The world of Litchfield worsened considerably as the prison came under the management of MCA, the fictional private prison corporation modeled after the real-life Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Life at Litchfield was never ideal, but once it became a private prison, its crises metastasized thanks to poorly trained guards, many ex-military and all operating under the command of sadistic authoritarian Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke). Piscatella makes Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) look like a dancing, toothless bear by comparison: all fright and no bite. Piscatella’s zeal for punishing inmates was what led to the prison uprising in season four to begin with and the cafeteria standoff that resulted in Poussey’s death.

Season five is set during a prison riot that takes place over the course of three violent, chaotic, seemingly endless days. The ladies of Litchfield have taken over the place with the help of a gun, smuggled in by an inept guard known as Humps (Michael Torpey), who is concerned about prisoner retaliation and his personal safety in the wake of Poussey’s death.

The women take the guards hostage and issue demands, although it is the black women who want justice for Poussey who are the most heavily invested in using the riot to change conditions at Litchfield. For others, the first hours of prisoner freedom in Litchfield are a bacchanal. Some women institute a run on the commissary, the kitchen and the pharmacy, while others take the opportunity to simply walk around the campus in the nude, and still others revel in the ability to walk around drunk without fear of repercussions. Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) use the opportunity to become YouTube stars and grant makeovers.

After realizing the tampons, cheetos, and takis are a bribe from the governor, rather than an expression of good faith negotiation, the women set fire to them.

But Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and her deputies work to compile a list of the 10 most common requests from the 400 women in the prison:

  1. Fire the current guards and hire ones with proper training
  2. Reinstate the GED program
  3. Better health care (there’s a reference to an inmate who died after guards refused to hospitalize her even though her rotten tooth had gone septic)
  4. Conjugal visits
  5. Amnesty for rioters
  6. An end to solitary confinement and arbitrary cavity searches
  7. Equal treatment regardless of race or celebrity
  8. Internet access
  9. CO Bailey arrested and charged for Poussey’s murder
  10. Free tampons, hot Cheetos and Takis available in the commissary, and more nutritious food in the cafeteria

A couple of women, Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Blanca (Laura Gómez), realize the tactical advantage a prison riot affords them, and they start sifting through guard files in search of evidence that Piscatella is unfit to be working at Litchfield. It turns out they’re right — Piscatella left his last job at a men’s prison after he handcuffed an inmate in a shower and proceeded to scald him to death. Red and Blanca are aided in their mission with the help of pharmaceutical-grade speed, which one of the guards has been smuggling in and keeping in his locker in a bottle marked for energy-boosting vitamins — yet another symptom of Litchfield’s danger and dysfunction.

Despite the deplorable conditions that have led to the Litchfield riot, the writers of Orange is the New Black were not interested in creating pro-prisoner propaganda — far from it. One of the most disturbing aspects of this season is the depth to which it forces us to think about how easily power can corrupt individuals who see themselves as good or, at the very least, not as bad as their tormentors.

Alison (Amanda Stephen), Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) are committed to seeking justice for Poussey.

JoJo Whilden / Netflix

When inmate Dayanara “Daya” Diaz (Dascha Polanco) gains control of the prison after picking up Humps’ gun and shooting him in the leg with it, it doesn’t take long for the inmates to begin subjecting the guards to the same humiliating treatment they’re protesting. They force the guards to strip down to their underwear, then openly objectify and sexually harass them. When two meth heads get the gun after Daya loses it, they force the guards to amuse them with a talent show dubbed Litchfield Idol, in which one guard sucks up to his captors by going full Magic Mike to TLC’s “Red Light Special.” They force the guards to eat the same prison slop they’re fed day after day, and to relieve themselves in a communal bucket.

To replicate the cruel and unusual hellishness of solitary confinement, known as the SHU (Secured Housing Unit), Litchfield inmates throw the warden, Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), into the “Poo”: essentially, solitary confinement in the prison’s outdoor porta-potties. The inmates’ actions echo revelations from the Stanford prison experiment and more recently in Mother Jones journalist Shane Bauer’s account of the four months he spent working in a CCA prison in Winnfield, Louisiana.

The worst part of Rogue Litchfield is the way it fails the most vulnerable inmates, namely Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and Maureen (Emily Althaus), the two most severely mentally ill prisoners there. Suzanne suffers without her antipsychotics and without her regular troupe of protectors, who are busy negotiating the terms of a hostage release with the governor and his aides. Suzanne is left zip-tied to her bunk by the meth heads, who paint her face with baby powder and makeup. Maureen, who was in the infirmary after surviving a vicious lock-in-a-sock attack, will likely die. Her facial wounds are infected to the point of inducing delirium and fever.

Essentially, a private prison system motivated only by profit and shareholder greed created this dangerous environment for inmates and corrections officers alike. It’s what’s set off the chain of events that led to Poussey’s death, the riot, Humphries’ death, Maureen’s likely death and Piscatella’s vengeful spree of inmate kidnapping, scalping and torture.

There was always a moral imperative to Orange, even in its first season. It’s based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, the character on whom Chapman is based, and Kerman is a devoted and vocal advocate for prison reform. OITNB began as a show that had the radical audacity to make otherwise apathetic people question the prison-industrial complex. It added some drama and some sex and got us hooked. Along with Sunday mornings spent with Melissa Harris-Perry, Orange helped us arrive at a point where Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, could vault to intellectual superstardom, where notions of prison abolition began to work their way into the mainstream, and where @prisonculture became a must-follow account on Twitter. Orange began as a reflection of real-life horror stories that President Barack Obama’s administration and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers were at least trying to end with measures aimed at reforming the criminal justice system, such as rolling back mandatory minimum sentences. Obama remains the only sitting president to ever visit a federal prison.

Brad William Henke as Litchfield’s resident villain, Desi Piscatella.

Jojo Whilden/Netflix

But nothing is outrageous anymore. The most disturbing thing Orange could do in its fifth season, and what’s resulted in a show that’s not nearly as bingeable as its more lighthearted early fare, was explore the far-reaching implications of the private prison system’s greed-driven nihilism. Take, for example, the frightening real-life circumstance of one prisoner whom Bauer wrote about in Mother Jones: a man at Winnfield who lost his fingers and both legs to gangrene after officers refused to hospitalize him in an effort to save money because CCA is required to pick up hospital tabs. It’s entirely plausible that a prisoner could die of sepsis in Litchfield.

The most hyperbole OITNB inserted into the show was done by shooting an episode in which Piscatella has sneaked back into the prison in full riot gear as a horror movie, with Piscatella as the monster hunting down and snatching women one by one. After all, Piscatella’s murder-by-scalding shower was another instance of abuse ripped from the headlines — the real-life Florida prison guards who facilitated and oversaw Darren Rainey’s death weren’t even charged for it.

Orange is not the first drama to reveal the ugly underbelly of the carceral state. Don’t forget about Oz, which began airing in 1997 and practically required its viewers to watch from between their fingers, if they even managed to make it through all six seasons at all. But the tales Orange tells are all the more effective thanks to how easy it is to point to their corollaries in real life. Despite CCA’s best efforts to mask the goings-on inside its facilities, we know about them. It’s virtually impossible for the fictional circumstances of Litchfield to be more devastating than the truth of life at Winnfield Correctional and private prisons like it all over the country.

Like Get Out, Beatriz at Dinner, The Handmaid’s Tale and even the second season of Queen Sugar, the many horrors of the fifth season of Orange is the New Black will likely be remembered as emblematic of the Trump era, even though it was written and shot well before the nation swore in its 45th president, or even elected him. Now, the most nightmarish aspects of Orange reflect a reality that Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is working to maintain and expand, by rescinding an Obama order ending federal use of private prisons and by revitalizing the drug war. It’s one in which a sheriff who presided over the torturous death of one inmate by dehydration and the repeated rape of another has been elevated to the position of assistant secretary within the Department of Homeland Security. The vision the Sessions Justice Department has for making America great again is precisely the one Orange is the New Black has revealed to be barbaric, dehumanizing, expensive and grossly ineffective.

The latest season of Orange forces us to ask ourselves if we’re still the country of Oprah-as-mentored-by-Maya-Angelou. The place that believes when you know better, you do better? Because we are post-Attica, post-Stanford prison experiment, post-Sandra Bland, post-60 Minutes expose on Pelican Bay. The Blacksonian, in part funded by Oprah herself, was built around one of the guard towers from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, so infamous is its role in American history. Angola is the Lucy in the evolutionary story linking slavery to modern-day mass incarceration, notorious for its long sentences, corruption and reliance on practices such as chain gangs and convict leasing.

Alison (Amanda Stephen), Taystee (Danielle Brooks), and Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) strategize about what to do with Warden Caputo (Nick Sandow).

JoJo Whilden / Netflix

Part of the legacy of Orange is the New Black is helping us to know better. Because of it, we are able to imagine what life is like in the SHU, and why many consider it to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. It’s shown us the many obstacles for released prisoners that lead to skyrocketing rates of recidivism. We know that companies like Victoria’s Secret use prison labor, at a cost of mere cents per prisoner per hour, to manufacture those sexy skivvies we treasure so much. And, thanks to its past two seasons, we know the moral and human costs of treating prison as a corporate moneymaking enterprise rather than a rehabilitative one.

But even when faced with the shameful inhumanity of recent history, even as states such as Louisiana are taking steps toward criminal justice reform, the present and the near future seem to point to a dismal return to a reality we’d agreed was worth ending.

Summer TV 2017: 13 cool shows to dive into when the summer sun gets too hot A crack origin story, rowdy manicurists, raucous NFL stars — Issa summer of the good, the bad, and the boujee

The dog days of summer will soon be upon us, which, for many of us, means escaping sticky heat and stifling humidity by heading for more air-conditioned climates, especially ones with screens. Of course it’s blockbuster season, but if you just can’t pull yourself from the sofa, there’s a plethora of summer TV options too. Now that Underground and Pitch have both been canceled, perhaps you can find a new favorite. Here are a few series, both new and returning, that merit some attention, if not straight-up bingeing.

Still Star-Crossed

Premieres: May 31

Where: ABC

Shonda Rhimes’ latest offering, Still Star-Crossed, is off to a bit of a rocky start ratingswise, but it’s certainly an interesting premise. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Melinda Taub (who also writes for TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee), Rhimes picks up where The Bard left off with Romeo and Juliet, imagining a war between the rival Montague and Capulet families of Verona, Italy, after the deaths of their teenage star-crossed lovers. Get it? Still star-crossed?

Orange Is the New Black

Premieres: June 9

Where: Netflix

Finally, the fifth season of one of Netflix’s best shows, Orange is the New Black, is returning, and it does not disappoint. The series that focuses on an all-female prison picks up the narrative right back where we left it: seeing an inmate holding a gun over a guard and ready to shoot. One character we get to really see some depth from this year is Danielle Brooks’ Tasty, who really emerges and gives us emotional complexity like we haven’t witnessed before. We’ve seen half of the new season so far and won’t give away any spoilers, but you’ll likely binge-watch all the new episodes in one fell swoop. Per usual.

Claws

Premieres: June 11

Where: TNT

As NBA Finals melodrama dies down, Claws is featuring more action than LeBron and ’nem could ever hope to make good on. This new series stars Niecy Nash as a woman with aspirations greater than what’s in front of her. Prepare for much pearl-clutching and jaw-dropping and oh-my-goshing while you take in this completely unpredictable series. It will keep you guessing, and it will have you cheering for characters you didn’t expect to shake pompoms for.

Queen Sugar

Premieres: June 20-21 (two-night premiere)

Where: OWN

Well, Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) has dumped her loser husband — or started moving in that direction, anyhow — and she’s this close to getting her own sugar refinery. What could possibly go wrong? While Queen Sugar continues to examine family dynamics and wealth, it’s also continuing its look at a Louisiana justice system that is especially hard on young black men and boys and the people who care for them. Oh, and the fabulous Aunt Vi (Tina Lifford) remains forever young at heart — this season she’s dipping out in a crop top!

G.L.O.W.

Premieres: June 23

Where: Netflix

Holy Lycra and blue eye shadow, what do we have here? Netflix’s new series G.L.O.W. stars Alison Brie as Ruth Wilder, an actress in 1980s Los Angeles who just wants a decent part for once. We’re still demanding this for actresses now — the ’80s must have been rough. Anyhow, Miss Ruth finds her way into the world of ladies’ wrestling, a world filled with drama, rivalries and some seriously scary athletes. It also features Britney Young and Sydelle Noel.

Power

Premieres: June 25

Where: Starz

The countdown for the return of Power, of one of the sexiest, most tweet-able series to ever hit flat-screens has finally begun. We last left Ghost (Omari Hardwick) as he was headed to prison for a murder he actually didn’t commit (not that he’s above catching a body, though). Chances are good he won’t be locked up for very long. Catch up on all of last season, here.

All or Nothing: A Season with the L.A. Rams

Premieres: June 30

Where: Amazon Prime

If HBO’s Hard Knocks is a show all about optimism as it winds through the early days of training camp (when everyone has a shot) toward the nail-biting of roster cuts, All or Nothing is decidedly more … bleak. Well, it is this season, as it looks backward on the Rams’ awful, terrible, no-good, very bad 4-12 season. There’s a high probability that you can watch and comfort yourself with this thought: At least my team doesn’t suck as much as those guys. Also: Jeff Fisher gets fired.

Snowfall

Premieres: July 5

Where: FX

If there’s a shop that knows what to do with a compelling, offbeat limited series, it’s FX. So far, the chapter-iffic ratings bonanzas that FX has enjoyed have come from American Horror Story and Feud creator Ryan Murphy and, of course, Noah Hawley’s Fargo, but Snowfall is a sumptuously colored new drama from co-creators Eric Amadio, John Singleton and Dave Andron examining the beginnings of crack cocaine in 1983 Los Angeles. Snowfall follows the crack epidemic from multiple angles: through the eyes of a small-time weed dealer who’s trying to grow his business, a Mexican wrestler, a crime lord’s daughter and a CIA operative.

Insecure

Premieres: July 23

Where: HBO

Lawrence, Lawrence, Lawrence. And Issa. Why do y’all do the things that y’all do? The closing seconds of Issa Rae’s first season of Insecure divided us — for the most part — along gender lines, and this new season is ripe for a group watch. Will Lawrence and Issa get back together? Time will tell. But, Issa, girl, you’ve got some things to atone for.

Ballers

Premieres: July 23

Where: HBO

Dwayne Johnson’s show, Ballers, about life after football, hit its stride last season: We got to see some deep dives from actors like London Brown, who portrays the show’s trifling character, Reggie. (You know you’re trifling, Reggie.) We’re also looking forward to seeing the dramatic complexities that John David Washington excellently pulls off. Catch up on last season, here.

Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Premieres: Aug. 8

Where: HBO

It almost doesn’t matter which team is featured on this most excellent docuseries, Hard Knocks, which HBO puts together during every preseason — you have to watch. It’s such a good behind-the-scenes, in-the-locker-room and in-the-coach’s-office look at life in the NFL. This season’s team is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: all eyes on embattled quarterback Jameis Winston.

Marvel’s The Defenders

Premieres: Aug. 18

Where: Netflix

Because everything in the comic book universe is intertwined with everything else in it, we get Marvel’s The Defenders, which is sort of like the Netflix series version of Avengers but with different heroes. In this case, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Daredevil and Iron Fist will unite their crime-fighting powers. Highlight: Rosario Dawson returns as nurse Claire Temple, one of the characters who provides the glue linking all of these series together in the first place.

Survivor’s Remorse

Premieres: TBA

Where: Starz

Survivor’s Remorse writers give themselves plenty to work with in the upcoming fourth season. The hit comedy follows the exploits of Atlanta pro basketball star Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher) and his family, and we left off with M-Chuck (Erica Ash) in Boston seeking answers about her father, the man who raped her mother, Cassie (Tichina Arnold). This season, the Calloways will have some new company: Isaiah Washington and Vanessa Bell Calloway join the cast: Washington portrays Cam’s father, and Calloway plays the mother of Missy (Teyonah Parris). Catch up on last season here.

How Jay Z and an ‘Orange Is The New Black’ actor brought Kalief Browder’s story to the screen A new documentary series reveals the rot and ruin running through NYC’s Rikers Island jail

If you’re familiar with Nick Sandow’s work, you probably know him as Joe Caputo, the bumbling, put-upon, overworked and oft-reviled prison warden of Orange is the New Black’s Litchfield prison. Inspired in part by his work on OITNB, Sandow is an executive producer of Time: The Kalief Browder Story, Spike’s new six-part documentary series from director Jenner Furst, which also boasts Jay Z as a producer.

Writer Jennifer Gonnerman first revealed the horrors of the last years of Kalief Browder’s life in an October 2014 New Yorker article Before the Law. Browder, an impoverished teenager living in the Bronx, was held for three years in jail at Rikers Island, much of it in solitary confinement, awaiting trial after he was accused of robbery. When he wasn’t in solitary, Browder was subjected to continuous and horrific physical violence in Rikers’ adolescent wing, where guards referred to the juveniles as “animalescents.” That violence, much of it stomach-churning, was captured on the jail’s closed-circuit camera system and is revealed in the Spike series. Time is not just an examination of the circumstances that led to Browder’s three-year imprisonment, but his death by suicide in 2015 at age 22. At the time, Browder was attempting to restart his life as a student at Bronx Community College — while battling depression.

Actor Nick Sandow poses for a portrait to promote the series, "TIME: The Kalief Browder Story", at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Park City, Utah.

Actor Nick Sandow poses for a portrait to promote the series, “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story”, at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Park City, Utah.

Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

Viewers of Ava DuVernay’s 13th documentary will find themselves encountering familiar faces. CNN political commentator Van Jones and The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander offer their expertise about the inner workings of the criminal justice system in both. While 13th made a clear argument for how slavery never really went away, one of the most haunting takeaways from Time is the sheer number of impoverished adolescents still languishing on Rikers who never really had a chance.

“If I learned anything making this doc, I learned that we have to realize, which I did not, that we are not working with a broken system,” Sandow said. “We are working with a system that is working superbly, it is doing exactly what it’s designed to do and that is to put poor people, and people of color behind bars. Put them away. And also people who are mentally ill. We have to begin again.

What did you want to accomplish or explore in this series that was absent from Jennifer Gonnerman’s article?

Gonnerman’s article opened up everybody’s eyes to Kalief’s story. I read that article and was devastated, and of course I’m working on this show [Orange is the New Black] that deals with the criminal justice system. So I’m going to work every day thinking about that. I’m from the Bronx, a neighborhood right next to Kalief’s. So when I heard about it, when I heard about his passing, I just was floored. I said, ‘What can we do? How can I do something? How can I help?’ Gonnerman’s story was the beginning of it all. And then we said, ‘OK, how much deeper can we get? How much can we tell? How many hours can we get?’

What about the difference in challenges in working on Orange is the New Black versus working on this documentary?

I wasn’t prepared, or knew anything about the prison system when I first began. The biggest thing about playing Caputo for me, by the end of the season, I’m ready to be done. I love working on the show, and I think it’s incredibly important, and I love who I work with. But by the end — I’m playing someone who’s tragically flawed, and the man can’t get out of his own way. Who, in his heart wants to help people, really does want to help people, but he’s stuck in the middle, and he’s working for people who could care less about the people he’s trying to help. When I heard of Kalief’s passing, I truly was broken down and was like, I am not [Caputo], and I have to do something. Of course it led me to the story. I knew I could make that. I knew how to make that.

I really do believe [OITNB creator Jenji Kohan] and Orange opened people’s eyes to the system. The New Yorker article was amazing, but the New Yorker is also a little bit … preaching to the choir. How many people read the New Yorker? It’s a certain type of person that’s gonna read that article. And I said, ‘Can more people know and hear about Kalief? And how can we do that?’

We have to keep shining the light, keep showing what this system is really doing.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently rescinded an Obama-era policy concerning the federal use of private prisons.

A huge step back. The privatization, to fall back on that. I mean listen, there’s 65, 68, 70 percent recidivism. That’s a good business to get into. Prison stocks went out of the roof. It’s scary, it’s scary. Listen, the climate we’re in now … Guys like Jeff Sessions, they’ve been running the country for a long time, and that’s what got us here. I think that we have to keep shining the light, keep showing what this system is really doing, not doing. We have a president right now who in 1989 took out a full-page ad in the Daily News calling for the execution of five 16-year-old boys, the Central Park Five, and was calling for their execution, and still stands by it today.

One commonality I’ve seen from those who cover criminal justice and the prison system is that prisons are basically just a black hole for information.

Here in New York we have a new administration, and I think they have designs on changing the nature of Rikers Island. They talked to us, and were willing to talk to us about what was the path and what they’re trying to do. We tried to talk to Norm Seabrook, the head of the corrections union. I set up an interview with him in the Bronx. He actually lives not far from where I grew up, and I set up a meeting with him. We were gonna sit down and talk to him, and he walked out. He asked for the questions, we showed him the questions, and he walked out. He said, ‘I’m not gonna answer that stuff.’ It didn’t matter to us. Norman Seabrook has a big mouth and he talked to every form of press he possibly could, so we had plenty of stuff, on how Norman dealt with reforms — or didn’t deal with reforms.

The interviews with the correctional officers juxtaposed with footage from inside Rikers is striking. Did you get the impression that they’re aware that this isn’t working?

I think they’re stuck in a job. You’re talking about people who are not making a lot of money, and they’re ill-equipped for their job and they’re asked to do things that are absolutely impossible to do. Most of them are looking to feed their families, make a living, and have health insurance, and squeak by, and they’re spending 12 hours a day locked in a prison. It’s not an easy task. So, I was surprised too about how much they did want to talk, and how much they did open up. There are some of them who wouldn’t, and I think there is sort of a, with police, there is a wall of silence. But there are also some guys who are defiant and say, ‘Listen, I want to tell my story. I was stuck in this nightmare too.’

It’s just absurd, the bail system, we gotta get rid of that.

One of the arenas that failed Kalief and other minors like him, is a failure to uphold their constitutional rights in terms of due process.

Yes. And the bail system doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work, and it’s absurd to think that one person can get out because he has money, and fight his sentence. It’s just absurd, the bail system, we gotta get rid of that.

Have there been any reforms?

I do think [current New York mayor Bill] de Blasio has been trying to change the nature of Rikers Island. President Obama talked about Kalief in an op-ed, getting rid of solitary confinement for minors. So that’s a big move. You talk to COs about getting rid of solitary confinement and they’re like, ‘Well then, what do we do? There’s no talk of like, OK, let’s back all the way up. Let’s back all the way up and see these boys. They’re boys. We’re talking about kids. Let’s get in people who understand how to work with children. Let’s educate people. Let’s educate guards to teach them how to work with adolescents. How to deal with the adolescent mind, and how can we activate that mind. Realize we’re dealing with human beings.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Spike’s six-part series, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, premiered March 1 at 10 pm.