The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project 

Courtesy of Hulu
Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones

James Estrin/The New York Times
Roger Ross Williams

Roger Ross Williams

Courtesy of Hulu
Shoshana Guy

Shoshana Guy 

Levi Walton/Hulu
Fill 1
Fill 1
February 03, 2023
Online Originals

Recontextualizing History with The 1619 Project

The Hulu docuseries connects American history with the present, placing the consequences of slavery at the center of our country's narrative.

The 1619 Project, the sprawling endeavor that began as a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine feature in 2019, and then an anthology of essays in 2021, is now a docuseries on Hulu. The title refers to the year enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia, marking a pivotal moment in American history with reverberations that linger today.

The six-episode series comes alive in a somber but intoxicating blend of narrative storytelling, interviews with experts, archival footage and photographs. There's a lot of home video, too: a good deal of it from the family life of Nikole Hannah-Jones, who spearheaded the project (and won the Pulitzer). Like most print journalists, Hannah-Jones had no intention of having a camera pointed at her when she started 1619; she hadn't planned on becoming an executive producer for a major streamer, either.

Yet, as the work became a sensation for recontextualizing U.S. history in unprecedented ways Hannah-Jones soon found herself in front of and behind the camera. Under the guidance of journalist Shoshana Guy, who serves as executive producer and showrunner; executive producer Roger Ross Williams, the first Black person to win a directing Oscar (for his documentary short Music by Prudence); and media icon Oprah Winfrey, who also serves as an executive producer, Hannah-Jones's masterwork becomes a deeply engaging and deeply personal visual meditation on American history.

Each episode — "Democracy," "Race," "Music," "Capitalism," "Fear" and "Justice" — not only links America's painful past to the present, but anchors the lessons in the experiences of Hannah-Jones, who grew up with a Black father and white mother in Waterloo, Iowa. "Race" is especially emblematic of the show's structure as it unpacks how race is a socio-political invention rather than a scientific definition — a construct tied to Black womens' bodies to justify producing more enslaved laborers. Here, Hannah-Jones, Guy and Williams break down how they approached that episode, and the series overall.

With "Race," you all took a huge concept, and by framing it around Black womens' bodies — particularly with respect to pregnancy and maternity — made it granular and understandable. How did you arrive at that conceit?

Shoshana Guy: That one is foundational. We have to talk about race in order to talk about everything else. But it was a big challenge to figure out what the throughline was going to be because a lot of this stuff can be quite murky. We ended up around maternal health and infant mortality.

Nikole, what concerns did you have about adapting the material? And what was the objective?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: My main concern was that the project didn't get watered down, and lose that innate discomfort that it should evoke. I made it very clear that I only wanted to work with collaborators who wanted to be as unflinching in this medium as we were in print. I think it's obvious why we would want to turn this into a documentary. It's democratizing. You just reach so many more people. This is a medium that's so accessible.

Roger, why did you want to come on board?

Roger Ross Williams: When I read "The 1619 Project," it was a game changer for me. It hit me emotionally and intellectually. It changed me forever. I was like, I've got to work on this project. I pursued everyone I knew at The New York Times. I finally got through to Nikole and made a passionate plea. The essays affected me so much. I had just lost my mother, who was a Gullah Geechee maid from Charleston. [The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the lower Atlantic coast.] It was so emotional. That's how, that's why.

Shoshana, will you explain what a showrunner does on a docuseries, and if anything surprised you about that experience?

SG: It's twofold. One, you're in charge of executing the creative vision. You're working with directors, with Nikole, with the team. The other part is administrative, making sure it runs on time. It can't be understated how emotional this work was for the team. There was a lot of nurturing, almost mothering in some ways, that took me a little by surprise, but I stepped into it willingly.

NHJ: Her imprint is on everything. And I'm just so grateful for her.

RRW: Early on, we all came together, including Oprah, and we really worked closely. I thought Nikole needed to be the guide for the series — the person that the viewer is following on this journey. She is America; her family is America.

This series is engaging because of Nikole's personality, but these topics are difficult. Was that something that you wrestled with? The idea that you're taking this difficult information and making it palatable so people would stay engaged rather than turn away?

SG: That was a big challenge. How do we take the density of the material and make it translate, keep it engaging? Where can we have movement? We were still in Covid while we were creating this. So there were certainly challenges to getting all the different pieces together.

NHJ: I use humor a lot. I use it for my own relief. This work is hard — being immersed in the horrors that Black people have had to endure. And I think Black people have always deployed humor in that way. This is how we release that tension. And the interstitials in the piece also give you breath, they give you a moment to pause and look at the beauty and glory of Black people as you're dealing with all of these things. So all of that was intentional. We say this is not a bingeable series; that's why we released two episodes a week, because it's heavy, it's hard. But also, we're living and thriving and looking fabulous. This is a story of America.

In addition to Hannah-Jones, Winfrey, Guy and Williams, the executive producers for The 1619 Project include Kathleen Lingo and Caitlin Roper. The series is a Lionsgate Production in association with One Story Up Productions, Harpo Films and The New York Times.

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