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Prentice Penny Brings the History of Black Twitter to Jubilant Life in Hulu Doc

The Black diaspora's significant impact on both pop culture and politics is on full display.
  • W. Kamau Bell in Black Twitter: A People's History (Image: Hulu)
    W. Kamau Bell in Black Twitter: A People's History (Image: Hulu)

    Black Twitter was never a URL or an app. It was a destination that didn’t require a passport, a hopping party without a cover charge. This thriving online community influenced and dominated American culture and politics for more than a decade, and when it suddenly ended, it felt like waking from a dream.

    Black Twitter: A People's History, a three-part docuseries premiering May 9 on Hulu, is based on Jason Parham’s Wired cover story “A People’s History of Black Twitter,” and director Prentice Penny (A Penny For Your Thoughts, Insecure) does more than simply transfer Parham’s impressive work to the screen. Penny’s series is a vibrant, colorful celebration of the Black Twitter phenomenon that simultaneously maintains a funereal atmosphere as Black Twitter is laid to rest, but true to Black culture, Penny treats this significant loss as an opportunity to unite and rejoice. The series is Black Twitter’s homecoming. 

    Twitter was launched in 2006, and by 2010, it was obvious that the platform was more popular with Black people, who accounted for an estimated quarter of all total users. That’s more than double the percentage of Black people in the United States. Penny quickly establishes why Black people gravitated to Twitter early on, which provides the necessary foundation for the series. 

    “White flight” was present even in the digital space, as white users abandoned MySpace en masse after Black users started to make themselves at home on the site. White people moved in large numbers to Facebook, which is described as a “digital gated community.” On Twitter, you could follow and interact with anyone, which would later prove its downfall but initially, it broadened and democratized the conversation. Twitter’s format was ideal for storytelling, and Black users introduced such cultural elements as “call and response” and “clapbacks” that drove engagement.

    Penny is a masterful storyteller who throws an excellent party. He assembles all the Black Twitter early adopters and hashtag innovators, seating them in barber chairs and in spaces dressed like beauty parlors, fully prepared to spill some scalding tea. But Penny moves beyond basic one-on-one interviews and instead peppers the series with spicy conversations around tables piled high with soul food. It’s a compelling format that highlights how Black Twitter functioned as a digital family cookout. There were jokes, fierce shade, but also compassion and fellowship. The community was there when Michael Jackson died and when Trayvon Martin was murdered.  

    The guest list includes a powerhouse roster of prominent Black voices, such as comedians W. Kamau Bell and Amanda Seales, journalists Jemele Hill and Roxane Gay, and Brad Jenkins, former associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement under President Barack Obama. Penny also invites key players in Black Twitter’s development who deserve their time in the limelight. There’s Alicia Garza, who created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag; April Reign whose viral #OscarsSoWhite sparked lasting change at the staid Academy Awards; author CaShawn Thompson, the “mother” of #BlackGirlMagic; and activist Johnetta Elsie, a citizen journalist who tweeted on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri. Penny doesn’t simply tell the story behind Black Twitter but documents for posterity the individuals who provided Twitter with millions of dollars of intellectual property without compensation. 

    This is perhaps the series’s most striking revelation: Black Twitter wasn’t just a separate but equal Twitter. It was Twitter — the crying Jordan memes, the viral hashtags, the crazy story threads. Twitter owes much of its success to Black users. Yet the tech space — especially in Twitter’s early corporate days — is disproportionately, almost blindingly white.

    Twitter founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey recruited several prominent Black employees and seemingly prioritized diversity, equity, and inclusion — a practical business choice so that Twitter could fully understand its unique user base. But he proved an unreliable ally, folding under the pressure to maintain a safe environment for users, as certain demographics became the target of relentless abuse. Selling Twitter to Elon Musk, ignoring his plainly stated agenda to make the platform less welcome for marginalized groups, was undeniably a betrayal from the man who tweeted “I Love #BlackTwitter.” 

    Black Twitter: A People's History offers a compelling narrative that’s divided into three distinct parts. The first explores Black Twitter’s spontaneous eruption from the “#uknowyoureblack” hashtag to the live tweet watch parties for ABC’s Scandal, which were so popular that star Kerry Washington participated. Black Twitter wasn’t talking about the news. It made the news and shaped the cultural conversation. 

    The second installment focuses on the growing racial backlash after Obama’s election. However, every Black person with a smartphone now had their own digital printing press and could publicly expose busybody “Karens” and abusive police officers. Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, and George Floyd were all stories that were elevated to the mainstream through Black Twitter. The once informal digital cookout had become a potent source of community organizing against racial injustice, both small and large. 

    This all builds to a somewhat somber final act, featuring the twin antagonists Donald Trump and Elon Musk. Trump leverages Twitter for his own twisted purposes, inspiring the worst elements on the platform. After his shock purchase of Twitter, Musk, an obsessive foe of “wokeness,” steadily dismantles everything that made Black Twitter special. Under the guise of “free speech absolutism,” Musk restores the accounts of users who were banned because they were abusive or willingly spread disinformation. People of color and women in general were heightened targets for harassment. The Twitter party was over, and the platform’s new name — X — only punctuated the finality.

    This is worthwhile viewing even for those who might sneer at social media. You don’t need a Twitter or – god help you — an “X” account to appreciate the scope of Black Twitter: A People's History. The series demonstrates the significant impact the Black cultural diaspora has had on both pop culture and politics as a whole.

    Black Twitter: A People's History premieres May 9 on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

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

    TOPICS: Prentice Penny, Hulu, Black Twitter: A People's History, Jemele Hill, Roxane Gay, W. Kamau Bell, Black Twitter, Onyx Collective