The creators of Hulu’s newest unscripted show do not want us to feel comfortable watching it. They expect controversy. They know we’ve been “indoctrinated” and misled, and their work challenges those lies.
This is a six-episode documentary reality series, and it’s in part an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning work of journalism that became almost immediately controversial. But that response, its creator says, proves the point.
“The backlash, to me, is indicative of why the project had to exist in the first place,” Nikole Hannah-Jones said at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour. “We’ve all been indoctrinated into these myths about America and we’ve all been told a history that’s not true.”
Hannah-Jones is the creator of The 1619 Project, which gets its name from the year that a ship, The White Lion, brought the first enslaved African people to Virginia. That was one year before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, a thing I learned about again and again, though certainly not the real story.
I never learned about The White Lion in school, elementary through college. If I ever read those three words, or learned about the ship, I cannot remember them. It certainly is not part of the stories we Americans tell each other over and over again.
That’s one of the points of The 1619 Project, which began as a series of magazine articles that were expanded into a book, which is subtitled “A New Origin story.”
Now, The 1619 Project is a six-part series on Hulu, with two episodes dropping Thursdays for three weeks: “Democracy” and “Race,” “Capitalism” and “Music,” and “Fear” and “Justice.”
I wasn’t quite sure to expect from the series. Would it be a retelling of America’s history? A strict documentary? Repetition of what the magazine articles and book’s material? Something else? It’s all of that, but a lot more, too—including intentional discomfort.
The 1619 Project showrunner Shoshana Guy—who also produced Netflix’s terrific High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, another series based on a book—said at TCA, “We’re not making it so people feel comfortable, exactly. The opposite, in fact.”
‘Real Americans and their experiences’
In the “Democracy” episode, we’re on the ground in Georgia during the 2022 election, which was affected by Georgia’s new voter suppression law that “targets Black voters with uncanny accuracy.”
This is not archaic, boring history. It is what is happening right now, and there’s a direct line to the past.
The director of the “Democracy” episode, Roger Ross Williams, said at TCA that the series follows “people in real life who are experiencing challenges in each episode. So you meet and you follow these characters, and we’re actually following them as their lives—as they’re going through things, and their lives are changing, and they’re making decisions and the effects that that has on them.”
All of this is anchored by host Nikole Hannah-Jones and her conversations with people, from her own family to experts, including the writers of several of the project’s essays. She’s a compelling guide.
Incredibly, one of the reasons the show is on Hulu (which is owned by Disney) is because when the producers took the show to other networks, those executives wanted celebrities.
Director Roger Ross Williams said at TCA that “people that we pitched it to would be, like, Oh, you mean you’re not going to have a celebrity guide? You’re not going to have somebody famous? How many famous people are you going to have? And we were, like, No, this isn’t about that. This is about everyday, real Americans and their experiences.”
Disney and Hulu, he said, “really embraced the idea that Nikole would be the guide and this would be about Nikole.”
That’s what guided the structure of the show, too: “Nikole was going to go on a journey and she was going to be our guide.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones said that translating her words and others’ for television presented new challenges. “Even the most brilliant writing can’t render emotion the way that video can render emotion,” she said. “So, for me, it was a powerful experience to try to tell these stories in a different way, and a challenging one.”
Hannah-Jones won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for the project’s lead essay, in which she makes the case that, “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.”
A factual assertion in that essay was corrected by the magazine, and at the TCA press conference, she said criticism did ultimately affect the TV show.
“The backlash didn’t impact anything in that we knew the power of the argument we were making, the power of this history, the power of these stories,” she said. “We knew that every single fact, every single image was going to be scrutinized, and we learned some lessons from the original project: that thing you don’t think is that controversial or that you don’t think is going to be used to pick apart the project that can be used to try to discredit it.”
At the TCA press conference, the first question to was about what kinds of conversations the three producers hoped the show would inspire.
Roger Ross Williams said “growing up, I didn’t really know the story of America. I was taught something totally different. So when I first read The 1619 Project, it was like my brain exploded. It was an incredible, eyeopening experience, and I hope that everyone has the experience that I did when I first experienced it.”
Shoshana Guy said “it’s really about also understanding our foundations, right? We can’t move forward until we really understand the foundations.”
And Hannah-Jones said “it’s really important” to know that The 1619 Project “is not a documentary series about Black people. It’s a documentary series about America. And all of us Americans should come away with a better understanding of the country that we live in.”