'Orange Is the New Black' to Tackle Black Lives Matter in Season 4

Transgender unjust, mental health mistreatment and pervading racial tensions are among the issues featured in the darkest season yet of Jenji Kohan's Netflix prison series.
Courtesy of Netflix
'Orange Is the New Black'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black will tackle timely social issues when it returns for its fourth season this month.

What began as the addictive love story between incarcerated drug smugglers Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) has morphed into a series that will again use its ensemble cast to put its spotlight on recent headlines.

During the show's fourth season (returning June 17), creator Jenji Kohan and her team of writers will continue to use Piper, commonly referred to as her "Trojan horse," as a lens to tell untold stories of all the incarcerated women at Litchfield. The Hollywood Reporter has watched all of season four and, without spoiling specific events, the storyline will reflect Black Lives Matter after an unprecedented culture war breaks out in the overpopulated prison. The new and inexperienced guards employ levels of brutality and racial injustice that ultimately evoke the movement in an event that will impact all of the inmates.

Kohan's prison dramedy has consistently highlighted the prison's race groups, but the lines between the women grow deeper as the new season unfolds. By the end of the 13 episodes, the actions and fallout from the decisions made by the new powers-that-be — a consequence of Litchfield's new regime, MCC — impact the black women directly and send all of the factions clutching to their respective tribes like never before.

"Danger is the underlying theme: racial tension and danger," Selenis Leyva, who plays chef Gloria Mendoza, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "This season is definitely going to start up conversations that we’re dealing with now. That’s the beauty of what Jenji does, with the writers. They really take things that are happening, that are current events, and deal with topics that people are afraid to really dive into. And we’re going to go there this season, especially with the prison system."

Kate Mulgrew (Red), left, and Selenis Leyva (Gloria Mendoza). Photo Credit: Netflix

Black Lives Matter has been in the news cycle since OITNB last aired in summer 2015, and the storyline will be the latest example of the movement getting the TV treatment. In the last year, FX's American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson highlighted the racial divide in its retelling of the influential trial; ABC's Scandal ripped from the headlines with an episode of the shooting of an unarmed black man; and Blackish, also on ABC, veered from comedy for a dramatic focus on police brutality.

Last season, the treatment of transgender inmates was put front and center on OITNB, thanks in part to Emmy-nominated co-star Laverne Cox. Season three also explored the prevalence of guard-inmate rape with Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and scratched the surface of mental-health issues with Healy's (Michael Harney) backstory — all storylines that will be continued when the series returns.

"The prison system is going to be a character this year," says Leyva. "We’re going to see if it’s corrupt and how it trickles down to these women. It’s a menacing season. What’s happening out of these prison walls is going to really effect these women." 

Last season left off with Cox's Sofia still in SHU, her solitary confinement blamed on a need to keep her safe from other inmates, which is something that Cox has said happens everyday to trans people.

"Look at these laws, these ridiculous laws that are being passed," says Leyva, whose sister is transgender. "I fear for my sister every day because it’s terrifying to me that last year there were more transgender deaths than any other year. As much attention as has been put into the community, that’s also made them more vulnerable."

Manning says season four will see Pennsatucky empathizing will others who are also suffering as she attempts to process the trauma she experienced at the hands of CO Coates (James McMenamin). "What’s cool is that I see someone rehabilitating in prison, which is a really hard thing to see it actually happen," she says about her character. "They don’t really want you to get better in there."

Taryn Manning (Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett), left, and Lea DeLaria (Big Boo). Photo: Netflix

After revealing last season that Healy's mother was mentally ill, Harney's CO will link up with another inmate who similarly suffers in season four, continuing to expose the treatment of those who are ill both in and out of prison.

"Crazy Eyes, that’s a great example," he says about Uzo Aduba's Emmy-winning character. "I think that’s one of the reasons that the character’s so phenomenally on fire, aside from her wonderful performance — it's that it's really an issue. It's very common but it's hidden. There are people in our country and all over the world, so I think that exploring that is a real gift. In the hopes that you’ll say, 'Hey, you’re not weird, you’re not f—ed up, you’re OK. And just don’t be quiet, just talk about it.'"

But it's Kate Mulgrew, aka Red, who summarizes the darkness of the upcoming season most ominously.  

"The hardest thing is battling what appears to be insurmountable odds, in a physical way, in an emotional way and in an intellectual way: Red’s threatened on every level," she says. "You’ve seen the tsunami when it swept through Japan, right? Not many people survived, but it’s how they do it that is so absolutely captivating. That’s season four."

Season four of Orange Is the New Black bows June 17. THR's The Live Feed will have full coverage. For complete OITNB coverage, click here.

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