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  • Writer's pictureIlana Davis

20 Years Later: HBO’s Oz and Systematic Racism

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

More than 20 years have passed since HBO’s pioneer drama, Oz was released to an audience wholly different in nature and experience, yet the themes and societal problems presented within the show have never been more relevant. 

Although it aired a few years earlier than HBO’s The Wire, I like to think of Oz as being a sequel to the show - a depiction of what happens to the young men battling systemic and institutionalized oppression once they enter the judicial system and become just another statistic. Oz gives viewers the opportunity to peer into damage and psychological harm that being trapped in this system can do to an individual.

A basic synopsis of the series: 

The majority of Oz’s story arcs are set in ‘Emerald City’, an experimental unit of the fictional Oswald Penitentiary. The prison’s unit manager emphasizes rehabilitation and learning responsibility during incarceration, rather than carrying out purely punitive measures. All inmates in "Em City" struggle to fulfill their own needs. Some fight for power – either over the drug trade or over other inmate factions and individuals. Oz chronicles the prison management’s attempts to keep control over the inmates of Em City.

According to a New York Times article from early 2000, “when Mr. Levinson and Mr. Fontana set out to create “Oz,” they decided to make it different from other prison shows.”

Series creator Fontana is quoted in the article, “there’s a whole heritage of them. I’m trying to take the audience’s expectations and shatter them.” 

In doing so, Oz successfully confronts past biases and preconceptions held by audiences of all ages, in a progressive manner as to show the humanity and struggle behind each inmate, rather than a simple exploration of the crimes which brought them to the prison in the first place. 

Two characters in particular, Augustus Hill and Tobias Beecher, work as excellent foils for these preconceived images of men behind bars. As it happens, the two shatter expectations of their own race, gender, history, and morality.  

Augustus Hill serves as the narrator of the series in a style similar to the chorus one might find in Ancient Greek Mythology. He provides context, thematic analysis, and humor to a show often seems dark and hopeless. 

A description for the prisoner reads: Prisoner #95H522. Convicted November 6, 1995 - Possession of illegal substances, murder in the second degree. Sentence: Life imprisonment, up for parole in 20 years; African American Male 

Tobias Beecher is the protagonist of the series, being a middle aged white male sentenced to a prison system that is beyond his realm of knowledge or experience. 

A description for the prisoner reads: Prisoner #97B412. Convicted July 5, 1997 - Driving While Intoxicated, Vehicular Manslaughter. Sentence: 15 years, up for parole in 4. Parole denied in 2001. Parole granted in 2003. Return to Oz later that year due to a parole violation; White Male 

I found myself confronting my own biases while watching the series and in empathizing with these characters. Hill’s reluctance towards involving himself in the immorality around him, and his understanding of man is admirable and often unseen in shows of the subject - probably in media coverage based in reality. Beecher, on the other hand, falls subject to the trials of the system and finds himself in progressively harrowing scenarios. 

Both Beecher and Hill are subjects of the state and of the system, but they leave the system in manners that are both shocking and remarkably expected. That is, depending on your own biases coming into the show.

After learning that his surrogate father on the outside framed him for crimes, and after getting around Oz as a morally strong disabled individual, Hill ultimately dies protecting a fellow inmate. 

Beecher, after conducting himself in less than admirable manners and getting involved in drama and violence all around Oz, is ultimately set free to re-engage with a world that he seemingly abandoned. 

There is something to be said about these results, about the pressures of race and morality and the expectations placed upon an individual based on past precedent. To watch Hill eagerly attempt rehabilitation and die in the process is to watch a system fail those it's supposed to protect. 

There is disproportionate attention given to prisoners based on race or history, as both past and recent data shows. Of the 277,000 people imprisoned nationally for a drug offense, over half are African American or Latino. States like New York continue to see increasing racial disparity with a Black to White ratio being around 8:1

Shows like Oz, which portray the reality of prison life and the roadblocks which interfere with rehabilitation are essential for the breakdown of systemic and institutionalized oppression and racism. To understand where the cycle of adversity derives from is to understand how to change the very system in the first place. 

In light of the aggravated pleas from the black and multicultural community regarding systemic racism, one who is not a part of these groups has little connection or understanding of the consequences of that system, or what any implications might be.

Imprisonment is a tangent along a path towards equality. This is just one cog in a machine that continues to turn and turn until it cycles towards the next generation’s suffering - but this cycle can stop with exposure to the unknown and the misunderstood. This, in its essence, is what Oz tries to explore and does so with success, virtue, and a shocking element of humanity. 

*Note: I am a young, white female. This is just my perspective amongst a sea of voices better qualified and equipped to tackle an issue a great and daunting as systemic and institutionalized racism and oppression.

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