S2: The Black Elite (Outside the Box) – Highlighting Blacks in Prominent Roles in Film/TV.
Ep 1: Oz
From July 1997 – February 2003, lived one of the most violent dramas in American history. HBO’s Oz, was ahead of its time in many ways. The focus may appear to be obvious but it is much more nuanced. Every story line, no matter how big or small, is connected to a Black character in some way. It is well known how prisons largely house minorities. Oz, does a masterful job at representing all walks of life within the prison system on both sides in ways other shows can only try to adapt (OitNB comes to mind). While not only entertaining the viewer each week, Oz challenged the viewer as well through hard statistics, at that time, and philosophy on all levels. All these factors are but some of the reasons Oz should be watched or revisited in the present.
Oz’s six season, 56 episode stint had much to say during its run. What begins as a tour of Oswald State Correctional Facility or, Oz, and its well intended uses of specialty units such as Emerald City, an experimental environment of emphasized rehab and learning, quickly devolves into an inclusive world of power and survival under the supposed watchful eye of unit manager, Tim McManus and the warden, Leo Glynn. It is the world that sets the parameters as Oz shows us the entire spectrum of human emotion from passion to pain to altruism to selfishness all within the prison system. Constant race wars show us the teams while we learn the kitchen is the place to be for smuggling the hottest currency in Oz, drugs of all kinds, or simply put, tits. The show does not strictly stick us with inmates, for we are the observers. Oz confidently throws us in with the C.O.s and we go as high as the Governor, James Devlin, as we learn time and time again that the prison system is more about playing with the lives of inmates than actually trying to reintegrate them back into society. One of Oz’s strengths is its ability to show a scenario from all angles before asking us what would we do in those shoes.
Another strength of Oz is the casting. Many faces seen will jog your brain with the old favorite, “Oh that guy/gal from that show or movie.” The most resonating cast members will stick with us due to the level of realism they brought to these characters. Harold Perrineau’s Augustus Hill is our guide and translator through this strange land as many of us are ignorant to the prison system as well as the inner workings. Augustus Hill ends up being one of the more complex characters as he exists with us, the viewers, as well as the inmates. The reason is slowly revealed but it is some worth experiencing. Eamonn Walker’s Kareem Said and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Simon Adebisi are some of the most fascinating characters of the entire series. Both Kareem Said and Simon Adebisi thrived from separate corners of the prison until the atmosphere pulled them together for one of the most tense story lines of the series. It’s the aftermath of this arc that makes Kareem Said arguably one of the most stand out characters of the series. Michael Wright’s Omar White is a great late series addition that pushes Kareem Said through the rest of his arc. Omar White can be a favorite in his own right as well. He survives based on his own broken code but he is a true victim of the prison culture yet still insists on being a better person once he is shown the way. Craig “Mums” Grant’s Poet is so authentic, which is a true nod to Grant’s acting chops. Poet is the inmate with limitless potential to touch the sky, if he only wanted it for himself. Poet is a great lovable character because he can’t help himself and we don’t necessarily blame him for that either. We just watch him make the wrong choices like a distant relative that wants to see everyone do well in life. Ernie Hudson tie it all in as Oz’s warden, Leo Glynn. This all technically happens in his house so this is the man that runs the asylum. Easily one of the most morally confused characters working at Oz, we watch him try to do what’s right only to make things worse by good intent or just not caring enough to prevent the issue. Many of his decisions early on were based on either his mood or outside circumstances. Reminiscent of when we go to our jobs carrying external strife, everyone usually suffers, or our go to straw man. That may have been the point and a major reason he is so appealing to a much of the audience. A lot of great characters exist within Oz, it is with the help of the Black elite the weight of the world is elevated to a density that such a tough pill to swallow for first time viewers.
Oz says and does a lot each episode. One can easily write a book on the many thematic devices. As the series goes on and we see the characters change, the very clear overarching theme is cause and effect. From episode one, meeting Tobias Beecher’s story and seeing shades of his immediate future, to episode 56 and seeing everyone flee from Oswald State Correctional Facility, it is one giant commentary on cause and effect. It’s great. That’s not Oz’s sole message though, on a by nearly episode basis, Hill reiterates US prison statistics that is very scary when applied to 2019. You start to realize that nothing has changed. What progress? A show from the late 90s – early 2000s accidentally became a blueprint to a segment of the major issues within our country? Something that should be witnessed more than just simply read. Outside of pointing out the flaws in our justice system, Oz intelligently breaks down the human spectrum. The things we will do to get what we want. The cost of our actions. All the characters handle this theme differently. Their world is not as big as they think it is. We are shown that as characters are affected through the six degrees of separation. No matter what, just about everyone got got. A daunting notion when applied to our own worlds.
HBO’s Oz needs to be seen by all that enjoy the visual medium. It is a pillar of entertainment as it birthed a visceral genre in television. Chances are, your favorite show was influenced by this series in some capacity. Hell, major pieces involved in Oz went on create the current “best TV show” front runner, The Wire. One cannot get to there without being here first. A saying that rings most true with Oz as we wouldn’t have a fraction of the violent, gritty, bleak television content we do now.
If the trailer wasn’t enough of a sell, I leave you with one of the funniest bits in the show. Though still dark, the clip shows the kind of organic realism the series became known for.
*Note: Now streaming on HBO Go, Amazon Prime, and your favorite torrent sites