‘The 1619 Project’ and Nikole Hannah-Jones Illuminate America’s Dark History – This Time, for TV

This story about Nikole Hannah-Jones and “The 1619 Project” first appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

In 2019, The New York Times debuted “The 1619 Project,” a series of articles that, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in colonial America, grappled with the consequences of slavery in the history of the U.S. The project was developed by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her efforts. Now she has executive-produced a Hulu documentary of the same name, with six episodes that focus on a separate aspect of what it means to be Black in America: “Democracy,” “Race,” “Fear,” “Justice,” “Music” and “Capitalism.”

Can you talk about the process of adapting this enormous project for television?

It was a completely nerve-racking process because while the original project was ambitious, I know print. I’ve spent my entire career in print. So I know what works. I know how to do it. And in deciding to adapt it, I had to give up so much control because I don’t know how to do storytelling in this medium. I don’t even know how one produces a documentary.

I’ll be honest, I was afraid of, once you sell to a network, will they want to water it down? Will you be able to keep the unflinching nature of the project that made it what it is? In this medium, you have a whole bunch of other people who are reporting for you, which I’m not used to.

I think the biggest thing for me was trying to identify a team that I could trust because I’m [usually] very controlling of the work, and I couldn’t be. I don’t know how. So I met [Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker] Roger Ross Williams — and all of this is, of course, happening in the pandemic, so everything is happening with Zoom and it’s hard to really get a feel for people that you’re going to enter into this marriage with. I think the one thing I’ve benefited from is, I’ve been an investigative reporter for a long time. So I am a pretty good judge of people. And I have an immaculate bullshit detector. So I met Roger Ross Williams and [saw] his passion for the product. I already knew his work. I knew he’s an amazing director and producer. And so I trusted that.

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Did you have to change to facilitate that switch in mediums?

It was certainly an adjustment for me. I’m not an on-air personality. I never wanted to be an anchor. I was like, I’m not changing how I talk, I’m having my notebook — like, I’m me. I don’t know if it’s gonna work on camera or not, but this is all I know how to do, which was difficult.

For one, I felt very vulnerable, letting people see how I interview. These are things that as a print journalist, it’s me and my notebook. And I’m having a one-on-one conversation. Now everyone can see my interview style and I’m not performing, this is how I work. On top of that, it’s extremely hard to create intimacy when there are two cameras and a 20-person crew standing around and I’m trying to get this person to be vulnerable and share, often, very traumatic parts of their life. That was certainly a learning curve.

Nikole Hannah-Jones interviewing Niles Rodgers for "The 1619 Project" docuseries

The reaction to “The 1619 Project” has been a story unto itself. Many conservatives have called it revisionist history for its reframing of traditionally revered aspects of U.S. history. What has living through and watching that been like for you?

If I were to describe it, in two words, I would say “surreal” and “insane.” Right now, it’s easy to focus on the crazy politicized thing that “The 1619 Project” has become — the attacks, the criticism. It is wild that you would have a president of the United States or the secretary of state demeaning your work, or the first Black female Supreme Court justice having to basically disavow your work in her confirmation hearing, and all of these bans. That’s insane. And extremely surreal. Because I’m like, “It’s a project on slavery. What are we even doing?”

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I guess it hit a nerve.

That’s what’s also surreal these days. You get into journalism because you hope to have an impact, because you see things in your society that you think are important for people to confront. And to produce something like this and understand that backlash only comes because of how many Americans are ready for this message, who engaged with the project, who [found] this project very meaningful to them. And I couldn’t have imagined any of that. So I’m in a zen place. I realized all of the negative is only a response to the impact that the project had. And what else could you ask for as a journalist?

Read more from The Race Begins issue here.

Photographed by Jeff Vespa
Photographed by Jeff Vespa