The cinematic adaptation of The 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times essay series that accelerated the vociferous debate over Critical Race Theory, makes its debut on Hulu tonight. If history is a guide – and that’s what the whole series is about – the documentary series will prove as polarizing as the original version.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the architect of the Times’ project, serves as the guiding presence in the series, which aims at nothing less than reframing “the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative,” as the newspaper put it when The 1619 Project reached readers in August 2019.
The journalist and now university professor’s opening essay for the Times’ initiative became the basis for episode 1 of the six-part series.
“We wanted from the very beginning to subvert this idea about American democracy and the way that we tend to think about Black contributions [to it],” Hannah-Jones tells Deadline. “We kind of acknowledge that our brute labor contributed something to the economy of this country. But, of course, we’re arguing [in the series] that our greatest contribution is democracy itself, and how might you think about Black people differently if you understood that one basic fact. That’s the argument that sets up the entire series.”
Adds showrunner Shoshana Guy, “[It’s] this idea of ‘America, the land of the free.’ But who is actually fighting for that freedom? We’re unpacking that and trying to really fit those pieces together — and it can be complicated to try to unpack, particularly in this medium, but I hope that people make those connections.”
The first two episodes of the series premiere tonight, with two more on February 2 and the final two on February 9. Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams directed two of the episodes and serves as an executive producer; Oprah Winfrey, Hannah-Jones, and Naimah Jabali-Nash are producers. Williams sought out Hannah-Jones to collaborate on the documentary adaptation.
“I had read The 1619 Project and was just moved on so many levels,” Williams tells Deadline. “And I was determined to be a part of it. But I had to get to Nikole. I called everyone I know at The New York Times and, finally, when I got the chance to talk to her, I said, ‘Everything I’ve been doing, all the work, is leading up to this. This project is so important to me, to who I am, to my own experiences as a Black American. And I owe it to my family.’ It’s just been an incredible, incredible journey to make.”
The series provides a comprehensive examination of our country, beginning from the arrival of enslaved Africans in the British colonies 404 years ago now. From the beginning, white slave owners had the right to rape Black women they owned, the series points out, leading to a growing population of mixed-race Americans. It is from that time that race becomes a critically important construct in this land, a battleground over who may enjoy the privileges of whiteness.
“A question that came early on” in the 17th century, reproductive justice scholar Dorothy Roberts notes in the series, “was what is the status of a child born to a Black woman but fathered by a white man? …Under the British law, which was a patrilineal law, these children should have the status of their fathers… If the children had the status of their fathers, then the children would have had an entitlement to their father’s wealth, their land, and most importantly to their status as white people, and that wouldn’t have served the white elite.”
Viriginia’s colonial assembly circumvented that problem in 1662 by passing a law saying that children of Black women were enslaveable. Time and again, as the series examines, any progress towards freedom or equality for Black Americans has been met with barriers erected by whites. In the Reconstruction era when Black people were gaining access to the polls, whites conducted a campaign of terror to keep them from voting and later promulgated poll taxes, literacy tests and other means to preserve white rule.
And what of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln? Many viewers will be unaware that in the midst of the Civil War the 16th president seriously advocated returning Black Americans to Africa should the North prevail (for an in-depth discussion of this, see historian Eric Foner’s book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery). Frederick Douglass and other prominent African Americans firmly rejected such an idea. Indeed, the series argues, Black Americans should be acknowledged as the truest Americans, the perfecters of our democracy, the people who have sacrificed the most to see her ideals realized.
The truth is white Americans and Black Americans share a common history – one of consistent and unrelenting oppression by a white ruling caste over a Black minority. And yet we also share a common destiny.
“That’s why when people say, ‘Who is this project for?’ we say it’s for all Americans — that it’s true our fates have always been intertwined,” Hannah-Jones says. “They’ve been intertwined since 1619. I think one of the episodes that drives that home the most perhaps is the capitalism episode — that it’s not just Black people who are suffering. Americans — most Americans really of all races — are suffering because we were created on this foundation of slavery and we can’t get over it. So, we hope that when people watch the series, no matter what their race is, they do understand that we will collectively rise or collectively struggle together. And until we face up to our past, it seems we’re destined to struggle.”
The publication of The 1619 Project met with a tremendous backlash print from conservatives. President Trump, in office when the series came out, reacted with outrage.
“Critical race theory, The 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison,” he declared, “that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”
The series says there are 33 state level efforts to pass bills to “restrict educators from teaching The 1619 Project or systemic racism.’ Florida and Texas have led the way to control what aspects of American history can be taught and how.
“It’s always confusing to me that folks consider something radical that’s just what happened. It’s just history. It’s actually not that radical,” Guy, the showrunner, observes. “I hope that this series can be used as a tool to continue to teach. My dream for it after it’s on television is that people would use it in schools and that it would continue to help our young people understand and give them context for the world that they live in, in a way that is accessible to them and is beautiful to watch.”
Adds Williams, “Nikole wouldn’t be doing her job and we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if they [conservatives] weren’t talking about it. If they didn’t care, then we haven’t done our jobs. So, the fact that they are talking about it means they’re afraid. And what that is about, is about power. They don’t want to relinquish power, so there’s going to be a fight and they’re going to use any way to hold onto that power.”
He adds, “Maybe Americans will realize that this is really about power… that [when] the few control the power, all Americans suffer because of that.”
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