As a graduate student in a Public History program, it would be impossible for me to escape knowledge of “The 1619 Project.” The journalism project was developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones with The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine and first launched in August 2019, on the four-hundredth anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia. The project looks to recontextualize the history of the United States through the effects of slavery and Black Americans’ contributions.
It focuses both on retelling the whitewashed history of the country, while also exploring how modern issues are shaped by the legacy of slavery. While the project has received significant criticism from right-wing politicians and some more legitimate critiques from historians, Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her introduction essay.
In 2021, an anthology of some of the essays was released as a book, so it’s not surprising that the journalism project now comes to TV in the form of a docu-series. The six part series is an expansion of the project by The New York Times Magazine, and is produced by Hannah-Jones and Oprah Winfrey, amongst others. Hannah-Jones serves as the host of it, interviewing other experts and people affected by the issues being discussed. She also shares much of her own family history and explores how her grandparents demonstrate many of the topics.
Each of the six episodes address a different topic: Democracy, Race, Capitalism, Music, Fear, and Justice. Showrunner Shoshana Guy did an excellent job of dividing material into each episode, ensuring that even if a viewer watches only one, they come away with an understanding of the heart of “The 1619 Project,” without it becoming repetitive for anyone watching the full show. The loose themes for each episode allow for tangents to be explored and many facets of history and culture to be covered.
The first episode examines voting rights, looking at historical issues in the Jim Crow South alongside modern problems in Georgia. This juxtaposition of the historical and the modern that the whole series uses is one of the smartest decisions. By using a thematic approach rather than a chronological one, it’s easier to see the links between the institution of slavery and the experiences of Black Americans since its abolishment, leading straight to the modern day.
Other episodes examine everything from Black citizens being forced off of their land for federal projects to Black women’s reproductive lives and the challenges they face. It reframes the incomplete history most of us were taught in school to include both Black Americans’ contributions and the horrors of slavery that white Americans acted out.
Despite these noble aims, the series might have fallen flat if it wasn’t excellently crafted. But it maintains a balance of using interview footage, with archival footage and occasional footage of dance or imagery of Black Americans. It knows the acceptable amount of violence to share with its audience without becoming trauma porn. Some of this may be due to the expertise of Roger Ross Williams, who is an executive producer, the director of the first episode, and co-director of the final episode. Williams was the first African-American director to win an Academy Award (for Best Documentary Short Film for Music by Prudence in 2009), so his involvement feels apt.
The inclusion of an episode focused on music is indicative of the way that this project seeks not only to address the obvious topics, but to completely restructure the way that we think about the history of America and our modern society. The show is also careful in balancing how it delivers its information, to spread out its more somber gut-punch moments and end on a hopeful note, which makes it easier to take in while still delivering necessary information.
Overall, Hulu’s The 1619 Project is an excellent watch whether you’ve read the essays online or in their anthology or if you have little familiarity with the project. It will hopefully be a way to disseminate Hannah-Jones and the other authors’ important work to an even wider audience than they have already reached and would even be a useful tool for the classroom. The 1619 Project is exactly the kind of historical work that needs to be done for Americans to understand what the American legacy truly is and how we continue to be affected by it today.
The first two episodes of The 1619 Project are now available on Hulu. The remaining four episodes will be released weekly.
Photo: Malcolm Jackson/Hulu