Shamir Explains Why This Orange is the New Black Death Scene Bothered Him So Much

The singer-songwriter talks race, police violence and dangerous fictions.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Like most people with a Netflix account, I promptly binge-watched the newest season of Orange is the New Black when it premiered this past June. The show is essentially a comedy, but has always added a strong dose of reality to its depictions of gender and race issues — right down to the tension between the different social and racial groups. Right off the bat, however, this season seemed to be taking that tension and reality further, bringing conflicts between the races to the forefront.

Four episodes in, I decided to take a Twitter break to see how everyone else was feeling — and it seemed a lot of people were concerned with Black Cindy’s (Adrienne C. Moore) assertion that black people can be racist in the first episode, “Work That Body for Me.” Personally, I found it quite funny and surprisingly on point. Despite the backlash, I thought it was perfectly written — and executed in the way that it would be in real life. When Cindy says black people can be racist, she also points out that we can’t act on our prejudices without big consequences. That distinction made me applaud the episode’s writer, Jenji Kohan.

Still, my admiration for this true-to-life season came to a halt during the last two episodes — when Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) was accidentally killed by a good-hearted rookie correctional officer named Baxter “Gerber” Bayley (Alan Aisenberg). I saw these episodes right around the time when, in real life, both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police officers. Two black men killed by cops for no good reason.

I wasn’t angry because Poussey died, but because her death was depicted as an accident.

On the show, officer Bayley holds Poussey down with his knee during a huge prison fight, even though she’s unarmed and little threat to anyone. He seems to forget that she’s even there — let alone that she’s a physically tiny woman, probably less than one hundred pounds. And, in the chaos, he accidentally suffocates her to death.

I wasn’t angry because Poussey died, but because her death was depicted as an accident — and because Bayley was portrayed in such a sympathetic light. He’s new! He got scared! He lost control! Sound familiar? Often, the same brand of lenience is afforded cops in real life. Still, as we all know from watching the recent glut of videos depicting the deaths of men such as Sterling and Castile, when people of color (specifically black people) are killed by law enforcement in real life, it’s usually not a frenzied accident.

Sure, this is TV. And in a vacuum, the accidental death of Poussey is good writing — a good plot twist. Who would have thought that good-hearted Bayley would end up killing someone? Especially when other COs on the show have been so systematically evil and racist? But clever writing feels morally irresponsible at this point in history — if not simply unbelievable, given all the police violence we’ve had to endure over the years. It’s not OITNB’s fault that its new season happened to coincide with the deaths of still more black people at the hands of police. No doubt the show runners were bummed by the timing. Still, I have a hard time believing that this clever plot twist would have trumped reality in the writer’s room if there had been more black voices on staff.

What’s the responsibility of a show on Netflix? Does a dark comedy have to be true to reality?

This is not a time for cleverness. People like Bayley are often not the ones killing innocent black people — and those deaths are rarely accidental. That’s a dangerous fiction. Our country is conditioned to be scared of black men and black people — and the people who are supposed to protect us seem to be the most scared. Why did OITNB run away from this reality?

You could ask, “What’s the responsibility of a show on Netflix? Does a dark comedy have to be true to reality? Does art have to educate? What is art’s responsibility? In light of all the violence this summer, should every black artist be expected to make music protesting police violence?” These are all decisions artists and entertainers have to make for themselves.

I’m vocal, and I’m grateful to have a platform to express my outrage — I also know how tricky it is to combine one’s views with one’s art. I respect the OITNB writers for taking an interest in one of the biggest and ugliest current issues in our country. I just wish they had taken a stand.

Shamir Bailey is an artist from North Las Vegas. His pop music debut, Ratchet, came out in 2015 on XL Recordings. After a year of headline and festival dates around the world, he’s settled in Philadelphia, where he’s begun working on a follow-up.

(Photo credit: Paley Fairman)