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No matter how you measure it, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project was an earth-shaking thing when it premiered in The New York Times in 2019. It won a Pulitzer Prize. It sparked conversation. It generated waves of backlash from people who absolutely, positively didn’t read the full 100-page collection of essays.
It also offered a reminder of how effectively legacy media can still move the needle in terms of discourse.
As a six-part Onyx Collective/Hulu series driven by Hannah-Jones and executive produced by Oprah Winfrey, The 1619 Project proves something different. However provocative the connections and contexts that Hannah-Jones and company provided were within the print and online confines of The New York Times, television has been tackling the bigger-picture topic in earnest (and with some success) for years. Hulu’s The 1619 Project remains cogent, smartly argued and persuasive, but in failing to sufficiently adjust its storytelling to the visual demands and possibilities of TV, it fails to make itself essential.
On the page, The 1619 Project cast a long intellectual shadow, but on TV it’s in the shadow cast by Raoul Peck’s pugnacious Exterminate All the Brutes, by Sophia Nahli Allison’s lyrical Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground, by several shows from print transplant Sacha Jenkins (Everything’s Gonna Be All White) and by more PBS documentaries than I care to count. In this medium, the game was already changed — showrunner Shoshana Guy worked on Netflix’s High on the Hog, another probably superior predecessor — and The 1619 Project is just a participant.
For those who missed out, the premise of the series is that the arrival of the first slave ship in the colonies is a national origin story of sorts. Contrary to claims from the political right, the purpose of the series was never to literally demand that “1776” be erased as a landmark, nor to make every white person feel like the villain in our collective narrative. The point is that slavery, in addition to being our American original sin, was so potent that its tendrils impacted and infected every single aspect of our national life, from policing and the justice system to our particularly brutal version of capitalism — and that failure to understand that leaves us unable to move forward except in willful ignorance.
Hulu’s 1619 Project takes Hannah-Jones’ own background — she grew up in Iowa with a Black father and white mother, while her roots go back to the racist heart of Mississippi — as its spine and is most effective when it feels most personal. When she’s using the loss of her grandmother’s hard-earned house to illustrate the struggle to establish generational wealth within the Black community or making her first pilgrimage to the ancestral land in Greenwood, Mississippi, there’s a compelling specificity to the series, one that puts its curator’s imprint on the broader journalistic thesis. More frequently, though, each episode feels like the summarizing of an essay, most from the original 1619 collection, which means that a subject worthy of two hours or 10 hours might be rushed through in 55 minutes, with little autobiographical notes scattered in.
Nowhere is that more egregious than the “Music” episode, from an essay by Wesley Morris. Though it’s always edifying to hear Morris discuss culture, and the snippets of gospel, jazz, funk and hip hop make for easy viewing, each genre is treated with barely a CliffNotes-worth of attention. It’s at best a disappointingly superficial palate cleanser nestled in the middle of the otherwise serious series. Nothing in the episode’s aesthetic captures the energy or joy of the discussed aural experiences, and the discussion strips away valuable intersectionality, a recurring flaw throughout the series. I get the series’ focus and respect it, but…talking about the backlash against disco exclusively in terms of race, without mention of sexuality?
The early episodes, including “Democracy” and “Race,” are plagued by faulty focus or questionably illustrative examples, and there’s a flatness to how both of those episodes are directed. The familiar archival footage and barely edited conversations on park benches or pews are repetitive, and the traces of artful inspiration — like interpretative dancers popping up — rare. Even though Hannah-Jones is traveling the country for her interviews, it all looks and feels the same. Yet I still appreciated the ideas and some of the structuring, like the careful categorization of voting-rights battles into ancient history, partially remembered history and visceral present.
Fortunately, The 1619 Project ends strong. “Fear,” from the essay by Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander, traces centuries of white insecurities and the cost in Black lives — from 18th-century slave revolts in Haiti to Emmett Till to George Zimmerman to more recent examples of know-your-place aggression — with a bracing blend of the widely recognized and under-reported. Then “Justice” makes its case for reparations with impressive clarity and decisive contempt for the sort of counter-arguments that say, “Why should anybody pay today for things that happened 150 or 250 years ago?” Because the things that happened 250 years ago those happening today can be linked in a straight line.
It’s a clear message, which isn’t the same as being effectively delivered in good art. I think the frustration one might feel watching this series stems more from how frequently television has already delivered this message well — seriously, check out Exterminate All the Brutes and Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground — than from The 1619 Project doing it poorly.
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