Four years ago this month, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist behind The 1619 Project, first pitched the idea for the long-form journalism initiative to her editor at The New York Times Magazine. Since then, the original essay project has been adapted into a podcast, a book and now a six-part docuseries on Hulu in partnership with Disney, ABC and Onyx Collective.
“It’s been so amazing because usually you publish something and then you’re done with it, you don’t ever get a chance to refine it, to expand it,” Hannah-Jones told The Hollywood Reporter at the series’ Los Angeles premiere on Thursday night. “Every iteration of the project, I learned something more, about the history and about myself.”
Kathleen Lingo, an executive producer on the show and editorial director of film and television for The New York Times, said that she immediately knew the project was primed for the screen. “My role at the Times is to produce documentaries based on our journalism; when I first saw the 1619 magazine sitting at home on a Sunday morning, I immediately thought, ‘This is perfect to lend itself to turning into a documentary,’” Lingo remembered. “Because of the chapterized format, and each essay being on such a specific topic, it was really rich for translation into the documentary form.”
Added Hannah-Jones of the onscreen adaptation, “It’s much more accessible. You’re reaching a completely different audience, and you’re expanding who can engage with the information in the project. That’s really important to me, ensuring that the people that we are writing about and writing for can access it.”
Director Roger Ross Williams, the first African American director to win an Academy Award (for his short film Music by Prudence in 2009) told THR that though adapting a dense essay to a visual format was a challenge, using personal narrative was the key.
“When I first read The 1619 Project, I was transformed because I didn’t know my own history as a Black American, I didn’t quite understand all the systemic things that were in place,” he said. “Once I listened to the podcast, I realized that the secret of transforming this was Nikole Hannah-Jones and her personal story, and the way she used her experience as a Black American to tell the story. So I was like, ‘Nikole is going to be our guide through the series.’”
“The argument of The 1619 Project is that slavery is foundational to the United States … I want us to be honest about what this country was built upon,” Hannah-Jones said during a post-screening conversation moderated by executive producer Oprah Winfrey. “But I also want us to understand … that the legacy of slavery is shaping our society, whether we acknowledge it or not, and it’s not just hurting Black folks. I just want us to be liberated by the knowledge of what we were built upon.”
Hannah-Jones and Winfrey, who were joined in the Q&A by Williams and executive producer Shoshana Guy, spoke about creating the six episodes — titled “Democracy,” “Race,” “Music,” “Capitalism,” “Fear,” and “Justice” — which Hannah-Jones said were chosen because they are “core pillars of American identity.”
“It was important to thread a current story throughout each episode because we have to show how much has not changed … that the struggles of Black Americans from the legacy of slavery still exist today and to show those and weave that throughout the hour. You don’t want to just get a history lesson, we want to actually see how it affects our lives,” Williams said. “Every single episode is not about the past, but it’s about the present. Voter suppression, police violence, the brutal nature of capitalism — all of that is what we are experiencing now.”
According to Guy, working on a project rooted in education allowed for deep learning about the extent of Black contributions to American society throughout the process, and having Hannah-Jones at the helm was an added bonus. “Journalism is the record, right? There’s a reason why we say on the record and off the record as journalists, because we’re creating a record, and I can think of no person that I would rather create a record with then Nikole Hannah-Jones,” Guy continued. “The partnership has just been phenomenal and to be able to work for a Black woman who’s in charge of a project, who created a project, who dreamed a project and who has your back 100 percent all the time, is a form of liberation.”
The first two episodes of The 1619 Project are now streaming on Hulu, with the following installments dropping in pairs on Thursdays.