A New Expansion of The 1619 Project
A little over three years ago, after The 1619 Project was first published, The New York Times began the process of turning it into a television documentary. It was clear, from the initial response to the project, that it introduced readers to an eye-opening perspective on American history, one that pushed them to examine how the contradictions of our founding led to persistent inequalities in contemporary society. In its initial form — a special issue of the magazine, a special broadsheet section and a multi-episode podcast series — it reached millions of people. We knew that putting a version of it on television would help it reach millions more.
Today the result of that effort finally arrives. “The 1619 Project” docuseries is a six-episode program that will air on Hulu over the next three weeks. The first two episodes premiere tonight, Thursday, Jan. 26; the next two arrive a week from today, on Feb. 2, and the series wraps up the week after that, on Feb. 9, with the final two. The show is hosted, of course, by the project’s creator and main voice, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and it features some of the journalists and historians who contributed to the original 1619 Project. But it is also something new, a collaboration among Nikole, the executive producer Oprah Winfrey and a talented team of producers and writers led by the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams. Together with the New York Times film and television producers Caitlin Roper, who was an editor on the original project, and Kathleen Lingo, they reimagined The 1619 Project for a new format, creating new story lines, adding new reporting and bringing in a host of new voices, from the civil rights activist MacArthur Cotton to the pop-music pioneer Nile Rodgers.
Since its initial publication, the project has already taken two new forms: an adult trade book and a children’s picture book, both of which were published in 2021. The adult book took the original magazine issue, a series of essays with historical poetry and fiction interspersed, and revised and expanded it significantly, increasing the number of essays from 10 to 18 and the number of pieces of imaginative writing from 16 to 36. The children’s book did something entirely different: It told the story, in an age-appropriate style, of the White Lion, the ship that brought the first enslaved Africans to the English North American colonies and highlighted the contributions of the ancestors of those first arrivals.
The docuseries is another new iteration of the original concept behind The 1619 Project. Though each episode is based on an essay from the book, the show represents the most extensive reimagination of the project yet. This is partly because a new group of collaborators brought a fresh set of ideas to the material. But it’s also because television created so many new possibilities.
One of my favorite moments in the series is a long interview Nikole conducted with Cotton, a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It comes about midway through the episode based on her opening essay in the book, “Democracy.” This was an expansion of her Pulitzer Prize-winning essay from the original magazine issue, which made a powerful argument that the struggles across many generations by Black Americans for civil and political rights have been an essential part of the evolution of our democracy. In the show, Nikole interviews Cotton, now in his 80s, sitting on a bench outside the county courthouse in Greenwood, Miss., where he tried to register Black people to vote 60 years ago. When she asks him why so few Black people were registered to vote in those days, he responds matter-of-factly: “State-sponsored terror. Straight out. They killed people for trying to register.” In 1963, Cotton and other S.N.C.C. members tried to overwhelm this opposition by leading a large group of registrants to the courthouse. He was arrested and sent to state prison, where he was housed on death row and tortured. In her essay, Nikole wrote about the courage and idealism of people who “believed fervently in the American creed,” as she puts it, “despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all.” Even in this context, it is a revelation to see Cotton describe, with remarkable calmness, how he found the courage to persevere. “Somebody had to do it,” he tells her. “Democracy is a fight.”
Nikole’s interview with Cotton is just one of the many new elements of the docuseries that expand the ideas of the original project. Over the course of the six episodes, she interviews various historians, politicians, musicians, activists and average Americans, and she travels to many states and important sites in the nation’s past. She also plunges deep into her own family history. (Greenwood, Miss., where Cotton is from, was the birthplace of Nikole’s father.) For us at the magazine, who helped Nikole launch the original project, it is a thrill to see it reinvented for television, to watch as she brings to life onscreen the urgent contemporary and historical themes that have animated this groundbreaking work of journalism from the beginning.