With Florida governor and expected Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis making headlines for rejecting an Advanced Placement course on African American Studies, Hulu’s six-part docuseries “The 1619 Project” couldn’t be better timed. What started as an initiative from The New York Times reassessing slavery’s lingering impact on our nation even in the 21st century sparked a conservative backlash, making top journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones both a star and a target in the process. In some ways, that backlash has only fueled “The 1619 Project’s” momentum, which already includes a bestselling book and now this Oprah Winfrey-produced docuseries on Hulu.
Taking a departure from the initial project, which leans more heavily on the past (which has been a contentious point even with some historians), this docuseries, steered by Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams (“Music By Prudence”), producer Shoshanna Guy, and Hannah-Jones (a MacArthur genius who is also a distinguished professor at the HBCU Howard University herself), takes a more contemporary and personal approach. For one, Hannah-Jones is in the spotlight and uses her own life and family history to illustrate the six main focal points of the series — Democracy, Race, Capitalism, Music, Fear, and Justice — exploring the lingering racism, poverty, inequality, and more many Black Americans continue to endure.
As both star investigative journalist and subject, Hannah-Jones, the offspring of a Black father from the Mississippi Delta and a white mother, tears down the walls between her profession and who she is. Even better, she demonstrates how and why the latter informs the former. Using her own family as a case study is highly effective. Reminiscent of trailblazing Black writer Zora Neale Hurston — whose work as a cultural anthropologist is spotlighted in the PBS American Experience doc, “Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming A Space” — Hannah-Jones inserts herself into the story to bring an insight illuminated by someone within the culture and collective experience.
In that vein, “The 1619 Project” is a huge departure from other docuseries’ attempts contemplating race. Unlike CNN’s effort with “Chicagoland,” which centered then mayor Rahm Emanuel, National Geographic’s “City So Real,” also set in Chicago from a few years back, the Norman Lear, Shonda Rhimes, Common-powered “America Divided” for streamer formerly known as Epix, or any of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s numerous PBS specials, including his most recent “Making Black America Through the Grapevine,” “The 1619 Project” actually strikes a great balance between right now and the past, clearing the way for serious fact-based discussion and potential solutions. As powerful as many of Dr. Gates Jr.’s projects have been, they feel retrospective, making them easy to dismiss as being only of the past. The other projects often feel othered and deeply inauthentic.
Instead of hovering in spaces super well-known, “The 1619 Project” feels more like a survey of the country’s racial hotspots. The South, particularly Virginia, Georgia and Mississippi, weighs heavy while also intersecting and connecting Hannah-Jones, who grew up in Waterloo, Iowa and, by proxy, the rest of us, to its ongoing and complex racial legacy and fallout. By playing more roving “60 Minutes” reporter than anchored documentarian or resident historian, Hannah-Jones’ deep personal investment is quite poignant. In the “Capitalism” episode, Hannah-Jones, who is often seen with her notebook in hand, connects unionization efforts by Amazon workers Derrick Palmer and Jennifer Bates in Staten Island, NY and Bessemer, AL respectively with both her own family and the past.
Exploring this nation’s slave past, even speaking with scholars and experts who offer proof of the very real price tags placed on enslaved Black people and making correlations to the struggles of many Black Americans, will spark both controversy while also inviting new followers. “Justice,” the very last episode, delves into the controversial plea for reparations for Black American descendants of American slavery. Not just relying on slavery, “The 1619 Project” ties in 20th century efforts to economically undermine and exploit Black people and steal their labor to illustrate just why that matters today.
Particularly poignant is the spotlight on a once-thriving enclave of Black people in Harris Neck, Georgia dating back to the late 1800s that our government forced to leave in the early 1940s to create an Army airfield. Never mind that these folks from what is now a wildlife refuge were descended from enslaved people who once worked the rice and cotton plantations there. Fortunately, some people are still here to testify. For the first time, the Pulitzer winner also visits Mississippi and the plantation on which her father was born, learning new details about her family legacy in the process.
In the “Music” episode where Hannah-Jones sits down with her colleague Wesley Morris who contributed to the original project and the book, as well as such music artists as Otis Williams, the last surviving founding member of the legendary group The Temptations and celebrated female rapper Rapsody, more than beats and harmonies gets uncovered. Hannah-Jones exposes the deep cultural memories the music created along with the racist imprint that has also tainted what is a source of joy for so many.
As he demonstrated with the successful Netflix series “High on the Hog” and his numerous documentaries, including “Life, Animated,” Williams has a gift for finding the universal thread in extremely complicated stories. And his knack for great, technical filmmaking full of emotion is felt here. Cinematographer Jerry Henry wins with stunning visuals that mirror both the darkness and promise of this country’s past and present. Archival footage and imagery also win here, setting a mood that captures the shadow of the past.
To be clear, Hannah-Jones’ critics will accuse her of skewing the truth while her supporters will praise her for telling it like it is. For those completely unaware of our nation’s extremely complicated past and present, “The 1619 Project” will be a revelation. At a time when Governor DeSantis and his cohorts are so intent on hiding the facts and obstructing history, Nikole Hannah-Jones is more determined than ever to uncover the many myths and outright lies that have tainted our true knowledge of our nation’s history. With “The 1619 Project” on Hulu, she appears to have found her most effective weapon to date.
“The 1619 Project” is now streaming on Hulu.