The political polarization evident in the response to the 1619 Project – the New York Times’ sweeping journalistic initiative timed to the 400th anniversary of slavery in America – makes its translation to television something of an event. Yet Hulu’s six-part docuseries, “The 1619 Project,” illustrates the challenges bringing such a sweeping and complex undertaking to TV, feeling perhaps better suited to PBS than a commercial platform.
Part of that has to do with featuring the project’s architect, Nikole Hannah-Jones, as the TV version’s guide and correspondent, frequently offering personal anecdotes and insights connected to her family history to shed light on the larger themes.
There’s an unevenness to that approach, with the various episodes (overseen by different directors, and each devoted to a particular issue) at times exhibiting a cinematic flair, and in other instances playing like a more conventional documentary about the Black experience.
At the outset, Hannah-Jones discusses what drew her to the project, as well as the political backlash unleashed against it. While the threads extend in various directions, all of them lead to the original sin of slavery and its lingering if often unacknowledged impact on American life.
Of the six subtitled topics, the strongest is “Fear,” which traces concern about slave uprisings and controlling the Black population during slavery through the Jim Crow era and into modern policing, explaining how that mentality has informed vigilante-style actions by Whites that have resulted in the death of Black youths.
Those deep-seated fears of Black rebellion, Rutgers history professor Leslie Alexander tells Hannah-Jones, have fueled authorities and White citizens being on the lookout for “suspicious behavior among Black people” as “a kind of historical memory.”
“The 1619 Project” is at its best when drawing such lines that starkly tether the past to the present, including “Democracy,” and the ongoing struggle involving voting rights; “Race,” delving into the arbitrary and economically driven definitions of what historically made someone Black; and “Capitalism,” exploring slavery’s foundational role as America’s “first big business.”
By contrast, the hour titled “Music” could have easily been either three hours or omitted, featuring Hannah-Jones riffing on the significance of music to Black life with New York Times critic Wesley Morris.
The series concludes with “Justice,” a lengthy look at the case for reparations, which Duke economics professor William Darity calls “The only significant way that we can close the racial wealth gap” that persists as an enduring legacy of slavery.
Produced by, among others, the Times and Oprah Winfrey, “The 1619 Project” can’t be viewed in a vacuum, from politically charged debate over the teaching of “critical race theory” to other recent documentary forays into Black history, including Netflix’s “Descendant” and HBO’s “Exterminate All the Brutes.”
In a recent NPR interview, Hannah-Jones pointed to the partisan nature of this conversation, saying, “I think there is a segment of America that you will never reach. They don’t care what the facts are. They don’t care what the history is. They don’t want to hear it. But I don’t actually think that’s most Americans.”
“The 1619 Project” basically provides an extended taste of what made the Times’ effort both celebrated and controversial, earning Hannah-Jones the Pulitzer Prize in the process. As constructed, it certainly doesn’t lack for ambition, which as a TV production turns out to be a source of weakness as well as its strength, even among those willing to hear it.
“The 1619 Project” premieres January 26 on Hulu.