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Bringing Nikole Hannah-Jones to the screen on ‘The 1619 Project’ to be “honest about what this country is built on”

Four years ago this month, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, left behind The 1619 Projectfirst presented the idea for the long-running journalistic initiative to its editor The New York Times magazine. Since then, the original essay project has been adapted into a podcast, book, and now a six-part docuseries on Hulu in collaboration with Disney, ABC, and Onyx Collective.

“It was so great because usually you publish something and then you’re done with it, you never get a chance to refine it, expand it,” Hannah-Jones shared The Hollywood Reporter at the premiere of the series in Los Angeles on Thursday night. “Each iteration of the project I learned a little more, about the history and about myself.”

Kathleen Lingo, an executive producer on the show and editor of film and television for it The New York Times, said she knew right away that the project was ready for the screen. “My role at the Time is to produce documentaries based on our journalism; when I saw the first 1619 sitting at home on a Sunday morning, I immediately thought: ‘This is perfect for making a documentary’”, Lingo recalls. “Because of the format in chapters and each essay on such a specific topic, it was really rich in translation in the documentary form.”

Hannah-Jones of the on-screen adaptation added: “It’s much more accessible. You reach a completely different audience and you expand who can engage with the information in the project. That is very important to me, making sure that the people we write about and for whom we write have access to it.”

Director Roger Ross Williams, the first African-American director to win an Academy Award (for his short film Music of Caution in 2009) told THR that while adapting a dense essay to a visual format was challenging, using a personal narrative was key.

“When I first read The 1619 Project“I was transformed because I didn’t know my own history as a Black American, I didn’t fully understand all the systemic things that were out there,” he said. “Once I listened to the podcast, I realized that the secret to transforming this was Nikole Hannah-Jones and her personal story, and the way she used her experience as a black American to tell the story. So I thought, ‘Nikole is going to be our guide through the series.’”

“The argument of The 1619 Project is that slavery is the foundation of the United States… I want us to be honest about what this country was built on,” Hannah-Jones said during a post-screening talk led by executive producer Oprah Winfrey. “But I also want us to understand… that the legacy of slavery shapes our society, whether we recognize it or not, and that it doesn’t just hurt black people. I just want us to be liberated by the knowledge of what we are built upon.

Hannah-Jones and Winfrey, joined in the Q&A by Williams and executive producer Shoshana Guy, talked about the making of the six episodes – titled “Democracy”, “Race”, “Music”, “Capitalism”, “Fear and “Justice” — which Hannah-Jones said were chosen because they are “core pillars of American identity.”

“It was important to tell a timely story through each episode because we need to show how much hasn’t changed…that Black Americans’ struggle against the legacy of slavery still exists and show that and that throughout the hour weave. You don’t want to just get a history lesson, we really want to see how it affects our lives,” Williams said. “Each episode is not about the past, but about the present. Voter suppression, police brutality, the ruthless nature of capitalism – all of these are what we are experiencing right now.”

According to Guy, working on a project rooted in education allowed for deep learning about the magnitude of Black contributions to American society throughout the process, and having Hannah-Jones at the helm was an added bonus. “Journalism is the record, right? There’s a reason we say on the record and off the record as journalists, because we’re making a record, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather make a record with than Nikole Hannah-Jones,” Guy continued. “The collaboration was just phenomenal and to be able to work for a black woman who is in charge of a project, who created a project, who dreamed a project and who is always behind you 100 percent is a form of liberation. ”

The first two episodes of The 1619 Project streaming now on Hulu, with the next episodes coming in pairs on Thursday.

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