Nikole Hannah-Jones has given hundreds — or perhaps thousands — of interviews since she first published “The 1619 Project” in The New York Times Magazine in 2019. But when speaking to Variety ahead of the launch of the project’s six-part Hulu docuseries adaptation, the journalist says she’s feeling anxious. “This is a time of great anticipation and nerves,” Hannah-Jones says. “We really put our heart into this documentary, but it’s a different medium for me, and I felt a bit out of my element.”
She continues: “I know how to write a great magazine piece. I had to really depend on my collaborators — who were wonderful — to try to produce a great documentary, so we will see what the people say.”
So much of the production of “The 1619 Project” was new for the journalist — and cultural lightning rod — turned executive producer. One of the biggest hurdles was learning to conduct her interviews on camera.
“I’m a print reporter,” Hannah-Jones says. “I’m used to taking my pad and my pencil and sitting down one-on-one with a person and having an intimate conversation. And here I am — I’ve got this whole crew.” She adds, “How do you even create a sense of intimacy, so someone can have these emotional moments, when there’s cameras?”
Hannah-Jones hosts all six-episodes of the docuseries, the first two of which are now streaming on Hulu, leading the audience through the complex historical ideas presented in “The 1619 Project” through interviews with historians and personal anecdotes — including some from her own family tree. In six chapters — “Democracy,” “Race,” “Music,” “Capitalism,” “Fear” and “Justice” — the series analyzes the socioeconomic and political practices that began with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619 and ripple through modern society. In particular, what television can do is illustrate the policies and laws that “The 1619 Project” dissects in a way the written word simply can’t.
“There’s something visceral about the medium when you have to sit in that silence of the person trying to gather themselves as an emotion overcomes them,” Hannah-Jones says. “You’re seeing the living embodiment of the impact of all of these decisions and actions that have been taken in our society. And that’s just powerful.”
After its publication, “The 1619 Project” became embroiled in the culture wars, and Hannah-Jones chortles almost involuntarily when reminded that former President Donald Trump referred to her work as “propaganda,” and right-wing pundits have continuously slammed the historical research as a work of fiction. The conversation around Hannah-Jones’ investigation has become so fraught that there have been more than two dozen attempts to ban the “1619 Project” book, as it has become entangled with the controversial educational curriculum of “critical race theory.”
Hannah-Jones confesses she worried Disney’s Onyx Collective — the content brand that spotlights projects by creators of color and other underrepresented groups — might shelve the docuseries. They’d pitched the project during the so-called “racial reckoning” of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd.
“Everyone was wanting to talk about race,” she recalls, but then there was a backlash against the subject and the pendulum swung back the other way. “As Dr. King says, ‘We are a schizophrenic country.’ Now everyone was like, ‘OK, we’ve done enough of that. It’s gone too far,’ so I certainly was concerned: Would we get caught up in that?”
Fortunately, Disney chief Bob Iger (who greenlighted the docuseries before departing and then returning to the company), the Onyx Collective president Tara Duncan and executive producer Oprah Winfrey had no intention of reneging on their agreement. Needless to say, it’s been a roller-coaster experience for Hannah-Jones.
“It’s been an astounding four years since I pitched this project — in ways good and bad,” she says about her own transformation thanks to the highs (including winning the Pulitzer Prize for “The 1619 Project” in 2020) and the lows.
“That so many people still feel the need to attack it, that so many people still feel the need to discredit it, only speaks to its power. Because you don’t spend all that time on something that you don’t feel has the power to transform,” she continues. “This is the work of my life, and I know it means something.”
In adapting such an expansive work like this into a series, you all had to narrow the essays down to six episodes. What was the process like for you?
In some ways it was really easy, because it’s like, “What are the pillars of American identity that we want to challenge and subvert?” So, of course, “Democracy.” Of course, “Capitalism.” We knew “Music” had to be in there just because [that episode] is your breath of joy in this series. It was also a way to take something very familiar — like no one denies Black contributions to music — but let’s trouble the idea of what “Black music” is a little bit.
“Race” had to be included because race is foundational to all of this — how we constructed this ideology of race, how we have used that ideology to maintain the hierarchy that slavery created, and yet it’s that thing that everyone thinks they know, and they don’t know.
The one that took us a little bit more time was “Fear.” We had considered doing the “Second Amendment” essay, or “Fear,” or “Dispossession,” which is about settler colonialism and the theft of Indigenous lands. Initially we were trying to merge “Second Amendment” and “Fear” because they kind of go together, but we felt that “Fear” is so inherent in how our society views Black people that this was to be a focus.
Then the final one, “Reparations,” had to be in there. If you can get this much television hours on the modern legacy of slavery, you cannot waste that moment and not argue for repair.
When some people hear the world “reparations,” they immediately balk. But the medium of television illustrates these ideas in a different way. What did you find that a docuseries could do that the book, the children’s book and the podcast couldn’t?
There’s just something completely disarming about hearing someone tell a story and looking that person in the face when they’re telling you this story and seeing the pain. As brilliant of a writer any one person might be, it’s just the harder connection to make.
It’s the way that you can begin with a real human being staring at you, and you’re observing them, and then get that history of how we get to this moment. It takes away the abstraction. We’re not just talking about policies and laws and something that happened 250 years ago; you’re seeing the living embodiment of the impact of all of these decisions and actions that have been taken in our society. And that’s just powerful. That’s why when we had the chance to make a documentary series about this, that we had to do it. I think every medium has its own power, but the power of television is unparalleled.
You had already done countless interviews and historical research in this subject matter. What was it like to sit down for these interviews for this project? Was there anything about it that felt different?
Everything! I’m a print reporter. I’m used to taking my pad and my pencil and sitting down one-on-one with a person and having an intimate conversation. There’s an art to this that I wasn’t used to as a print journalist, and it certainly felt vulnerable to see people see my interview style.
Some of these interviews are with your family; others are with historians and everyday people, including some you’ve interviewed previously. What is a moment from these conversations that really stood out for you?
It’s just been my greatest honor — and I say that so sincerely — to be able to do this work, in every iteration, but particularly with the documentary. To have just regular folks who realize how important their stories are [who say], “Wow! You’re bringing this whole crew to hear this story of my family?”
One of the most emotional moments was when I was in the archive in Baton Rouge and we’re looking at the slave ledgers. Of course, I’ve seen digital prints of these things, I’ve studied this history for so long, but to sit there and put your hands on the book where slavers are recording the value of human beings next to cattle and property. And to be in the Deep South in that moment, I became emotionally overcome.
Also, being with Mr. MacArthur Cotton, standing outside the courthouse in my dad’s hometown when he talked about being tortured at Parchman prison [a state penitentiary in Mississippi], simply to exercise the rights that every other American took for granted, it was an emotional moment for both me and him. I apologized to him for that [happening to him], and he was like, “I had to do that. We’re here because I did that.” So even though this was an intensely degrading thing, he felt a great pride.
Probably the most surprising moment was when I was in Greenwood, in our family church at the family cemetery. I met a man who knew my great-grandfather, who I’d never met; he told stories about him, like that he owned a cab company that I never knew about. To meet a living person who had a connection to my own personal past, as we were trying to tell this larger story, was such an unexpected and cool moment.
“The 1619 Project” has faced intense blowback. There have been attempts to ban the book in more than half of the country, but now this series is going to be streaming globally. Was there ever concern that the show wouldn’t happen? That the Onyx Collective team would say, “I’m not sure if we can take this risk?”
Confession: yes, I had that concern. We had the racial reckoning of 2020, and we were out pitching the doc in that moment, and everyone was wanting to talk about race. Then — as Dr. King says, “We are a schizophrenic country” — we had this whiplash where now everyone was like, “‘OK, we’ve done enough of that. It’s gone too far,’” so I certainly was concerned: Would we get caught up in that?
As so often is done with Black history, that attention is fleeting. It’s treated as a fad, and this work is not a fad. So, I definitely had that concern. But I didn’t have that concern ever because of the way that Onyx or Disney was responding to us. In fact, Shoshana [Guy, showrunner of “The 1619 Project”] and I would laugh because we were going to meetings like, “Oh my god, are they gonna back away from this?” And they’d be like, “No. Absolutely not.” We have just always felt a tremendous support and a belief in the work that we’re doing, all the way from the top of the company.
But, I’m an Aries, so I always believe calamity is right around the corner.
What is your hope for the reaction to the series once people are able to see it in its full form?
I really hope that people will watch it with an open mind and an open heart. Yes, it is hard. A lot of it is really hard. But it also is the story of a people who always fought back; people who still loved, who still created despite everything; and more than that, this is an American story. When you watch the “Capitalism” episode, that’s not just about how capitalism hurt Black people; that’s about how we all suffer in this country because we have not grappled with this history. It’s not a story of Black people. This is a story of America.
My hope is that when it goes out and into the world that people will be transformed by learning this history and by making these connections, the way that I’ve been transformed — and I truly have — by learning this history. It has made me who I am and I’m just excited for more people to be exposed to it.
It feels like a lot of the reaction comes without digestion, without experiencing it. What have you learned about the importance of this project given the intense reaction it’s received?
I became a journalist because I wanted to do important work, I wanted to do work that told our stories and took our stories from the margins and put them in the center of the American story, as they should be. I know that there will be people who will never watch a single minute of “The 1619 Project,” just like they’ll never read a single word. And I’m, frankly, not spending any time worrying about them.
I think most Americans even realize how poorly we’ve been taught this history and want to know more; they just don’t know that there’s more to know, they just don’t know there’s a different way to understand our story. That’s what I’m focusing on — all those people who might scroll through Hulu and come across this and say, “Hmm, I never heard of this before,” or “Hmm, I’ve heard the year 1619 on Fox News, but what is it actually about?”
Because I really believe that if you watch it, you will be transformed. If you are open, you will be disarmed by the storytelling and the stories of people, and you’ll see it’s not a project trying to make people hate America. I mean, for God’s sake, “Democracy” is the most patriotic thing I ever wrote. It is saying that Black people who are not even meant to be treated as humans — who had no citizenship, who had no rights — love this country and fought to hold it to its highest ideals. There’s nothing more patriotic than that. I think that’s why certain people fear it. But I believe that anyone who watches it with an open heart — you don’t have to be convinced of every argument we make; we are making an argument — but you won’t come away the same. That’s the beauty of why we became journalists is we believe that.
As my spiritual godmother Ida B. Wells said, “The people must know before they act. And there’s no educator like the press.”