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By Dismantling Racist Myths, The 1619 Project Becomes Intensely Patriotic TV

Hulu’s docuseries turns the Pulitzer-winning journalism project into vital viewing.
  • Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project (Photo: Hulu)
    Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project (Photo: Hulu)

    Hulu’s The 1619 Project docuseries is must-see viewing, even for those who have already read the original, long-form journalism feature in The New York Times or engaged with the subsequent podcast and book. The series is more than just a straightforward adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning project from writer Nikole Hannah-Jones. It’s not just a sequel, either. It’s a well-articulated, powerful response to what has become a sociopolitical maelstrom. That’s perfectly fitting, as it’s hard to imagine the recent Republican-led bans on race-conscious history in public schools without the white conservative backlash triggered by The 1619 Project’s publication in 2019 and the ensuing attention it received.

    Hosted by Hannah-Jones, the docuseries explores “the legacy of slavery in modern-day America” over six episodes — “Democracy,” “Race,” “Music,” “Capitalism,” “Fear,” and “Justice” — that are adapted from essays that originally appeared in the paper. Hannah-Jones’ narration immediately sets the show apart, since her voice lacks the plummy tones of Morgan Freeman or Oprah Winfrey, who serves as an executive producer. Instead, her vocal style is more conversational, and it creates a striking sense of immediacy.

    Just like the other iterations of the project, the show aims to center the contributions of Black Americans within the national narrative and confront the consequences of racial discrimination. Far from revisionist history, it deflates pernicious myths about America’s founding, a strategy that many have unfortunately considered a direct attack on the country itself. Even some fans of the work resent that Hannah-Jones doesn’t focus sufficiently on the contributions of white Americans to emancipation and civil rights. This series won’t mollify them, as she remains unapologetically committed to her core premise. (She also doesn’t back down on her most controversial claim that preserving slavery was a major motivation behind the American Revolution.)

    Director Roger Ross Williams, who won an Academy Award for his short film Music by Prudence, works wonders with this material. Many documentaries can become ponderous talking-head affairs with somber narration over nondescript stock footage. Williams’ direction maintains each installment’s narrative momentum, and the engaging visuals help one’s eyes stay on the screen.

    Thematically, Hannah-Jones links early American history with ongoing current events, and this recalls the famous line from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Each installment reinforces the point, with ample receipts, that slavery’s impact didn’t magically end after the Civil War but in fact endures and actively leaves its mark on all aspects of American society, from policing to healthcare to popular music. The early slave patrols are compellingly connected to the now infamous white busybodies who report Black people to the authorities just for existing. The co-opting of Black art and culture is traced back to the insulting (but lucrative for white artists) minstrel acts of the early 20th century.

    As well researched as it is, The 1619 Project never buries viewers with dry facts and figures. The experts who speak with Hannah-Jones are excellent storytellers who vividly evoke the events they’re describing. Hannah-Jones also interviews everyday people, including her own relatives, and not just college professors and historians whom her detractors might dismiss as “woke academics.” Real Americans tell their own stories and serve as undeniable living history. This includes Hannah-Jones herself, whose biracial heritage is a key theme of the American story. Her mother is white and her father was Black. As she explains, she was from “two worlds but could only fully belong to one of them.”

    Hannah-Jones has become a polarizing figure, and a significant number of white Americans, especially Republican politicians, have accused her of promoting racism, which is like blaming the mirror for your aging face. Republican-controlled legislatures have even banned schools in multiple states from teaching The 1619 Project. The irony is that they don’t realize how this repeats the shameful racist history Hannah-Jones exposes. In fact, the project is overtly patriotic, and it shows how Black Americans, even when enslaved, believed so strongly in the nation’s promise that they fought to perfect a democracy originally designed to exclude them. They were their own great emancipators, and their efforts benefitted every American who truly believes in freedom.

    Early in the series, Hannah-Jones acknowledges how her work has become part of the story, and this personal connection to the material sets it apart from a more traditional documentary. But she doesn’t let the backlash, which has threatened her both personally and professionally, consume the work. She’s not here to justify herself specifically or Black history in general. Instead, she continues providing a voice to those who have long been silenced. She notes that the full story of America is “the fight to include Black Americans in democracy itself.” The 1619 Project brilliantly documents this struggle from the frontlines.

    The first episodes of The 1619 Project premiere January 26 on Hulu. New episodes premiere Thursdays through February 9. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Stephen Robinson is a political columnist, arts writer, and theatre maker.

    TOPICS: The 1619 Project, Hulu, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Oprah Winfrey, Roger Ross Williams, The New York Times