I once interviewed the magnificent Viola Davis about the failure of our storytellers when it comes to race. ”Toni Morrison said that as soon as a character of color is introduced in a story, imagination stops,” she told me. ”I mean, I’m a black woman from Central Falls, Rhode Island. I’m dark-skinned. I’m quirky. I’m shy. I’m strong. I’m guarded. I’m weak at times. I’m sensual. I’m not overtly sexual. I am so many things in so many ways, and I will never see myself on screen.”
Imagine that unbearable knowledge for an actress — or for anyone.
”I want to believe I’m wrong,” she added. ”If I woke up tomorrow and was 100 percent wrong about this, I would be so happy.”
I like to imagine that, like so many of us, Davis is ripping through the terrific new Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. There are dozens of female characters on OITNB. That means dozens of actresses are doing their thing in a summer where women have been largely reduced to nonsensical window dressing. The characters are thick, skinny, transgender, gay, straight but sleeping with girls while doing time, old, young, stupid, brainy. And, by the way, six of the best of them are black. The smashing together of all these different women leads to some of the most honest, bracing, ridiculous, and revelatory conversations about race ever heard on TV.
Taylor Schilling plays the lead of the show. Her character is Piper Chapman, a blond, wealthy, educated woman who sold artisanal bath lotions for a living before going to prison for carrying a bag of drug money a decade earlier. In every way, Piper is the epitome of white privilege. (As is Piper Kerman, the blond upper-middle-class author of the memoir on which the show is based — she likely scored a publishing deal because everyone wanted to know how a nice girl like her ended up in prison orange.)
But Piper’s so naive and narcissistic that she’s often the least interesting presence. It’s the women around her who fascinate. There are no flimsy supporting characters. The prisoners’ pasts, which are revealed in profound flashbacks, speak volumes about the torment of their souls and the circumstances that led them to Litchfield Prison.
In an early episode, Piper is horrified when an African-American woman with Bantu knots and trembling energy known as Crazy Eyes (played by superb newcomer Uzo Aduba) nicknames her Dandelion and claims her as a wife. But Crazy Eyes turns out to be neither a monster nor a joke. There are hints of an academic brilliance derailed by mental illness. She has parents you wouldn’t expect. She is real, and a surprise.
In another episode, an inmate named Taystee (played with great ease and wit by Juilliard graduate Danielle Brooks) is getting her hair done at the prison salon in preparation for her parole hearing. Her three black friends counsel her on style.
”So you want to look like the black best friend in the white-girl movie?” Sophia asks.
”Oh, okay, so you got Regina King in Miss Congeniality,” says Poussey. ”You got — uh, uh — Alicia Keys in that Nanny Diaries bulls— with ScarJo. And…Regina King in Legally Blonde.”
”You’re not thinking big enough,” says Sophia. ”Viola. Davis.”
”Boom!” says Black Cindy. ”Eat Pray Love, motherf—ers.”
Davis appeared for only five minutes in that movie. It’s not just that the girls on OITNB aren’t thinking big enough; it’s that Hollywood isn’t. But if Davis still believes she’ll never see herself on screen, I hope she is watching my new favorite show. Characters as rich and deep as Crazy Eyes and Taystee might give her hope that she’ll be proved wrong yet.