Spike Lee frequently discusses, with by now bemused frustration, how white audience members still approach him to this very day to ask if Mookie, the pizza boy protagonist he played in Do the Right Thing, actually did the right thing during the film’s fiery finale.
The title of Lee’s signal cinematic masterpiece is frequently raised as a cut-and-dry ultimatum to viewers, who are often posed the same exact question that has stalked Lee since the film first debuted in 1989: did Mookie do the right thing? I’ve been in at least four separate film classes in which professors talk circles around the question and students, in turn, bristle at the audacious ambiguity of both Mookie’s actions and Lee’s writing. But the question itself or, rather, its continued point of focus has always been perplexing: how has one of the most disturbing sequences in film history, in which a black man is suffocated from beneath a police officer’s strangling baton, managed to trigger single-minded scrutiny on the actions of one man and not the larger, detrimental institution at fault?
[…] Orange is the New Black doesn’t just tackle the topic but embodies it within a season-long format, revealing a larger, broader evil than the day-to-day treacheries of inmate rivalry that we have become accustomed to. For two of its three prior seasons, Orange made its villainy decidedly human-sized. In season one, Taryn Manning’s fanatical bully Pennsatucky tortured Taylor Schilling’s Litchfield newbie Piper before growing a conscience and becoming one of the series’s most scrappily heartbreaking characters. Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee, a cut-glass drug maven, dominated the second season, diabolically recruiting henchwomen and throwing her own prison family under the bus, only to find herself there, quite literally, by season’s end.
n one of the season’s strongest plot lines, a stop-and-frisk procedure is initiated against the inmates of color to curb alleged gang activity, a measure spurred by Piper, who inadvertently initiates a White Lives Matter group as part of a desperate grab to keep her illegal panty ring afloat amid unwelcome competition from Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel). Although briefly glimpsed in early seasons, Pimentel’s Maria has become an increasingly prominent symbol of the type of hardened survivalism that can only emanate from a crippling loss of control. In the season three premiere, she watched as her boyfriend put an end to their young daughter’s visits, unable to stop or even plead with him from the inmate’s side of a security checkpoint. In season four, she finds her sentence extended for three more years after being set up by Piper in one of the most crushing scenes of the season, erupting with fury in the face of Piscatella’s indifference and swiftly realizing, once and for all, that the deck was always stacked against her.
[…] Some critics may still take issue with Orange is the New Black’s lightness of tone, its ability to maintain high spirits as the world around it darkens. But there is a freedom of expression to such moments, which are more than just respites from the pressures and confusions of correctional life. The show’s sense of humor takes many forms — sly one-liners, goofy pop-cultural references, confrontational candor — that each work wonders in disarming viewers, even as they remain the characters’s strongest, most personalized weapons against a system that seeks to break them completely. In such dehumanizing circumstances, the ability to joke, to laugh, and to smile is a fortifying declaration in and of itself.
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