In 2020, Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer prize for her landmark work of long-form journalism, The 1619 Project. First published as a series of essays in the New York Times Magazine in August of 2019 to mark 400 years since the arrival of the first group of enslaved Africans in Virginia. The project aims to offer a complete look at the history of America, slavery, and how the repercussions of that dark period are still with us today.
The 1619 Project has since been published in many forms, including a podcast series, a best-selling book, and now an Emmy-nominated docuseries on Hulu.
The series is comprised of six episodes—Democracy, Race, Music, Capitalism, Fear, and Justice and traces the legacy of slavery through all aspects of modern American life. Hannah-Jones interweaves her personal story with original reporting, highlighting Black Americans across the country.
Working closely with showrunner Shoshana Guy, Hannah-Jones has adapted The 1619 Project into essential viewing—a vivid and thought-provoking documentary that demands to be seen— and that we take a closer look and reexamine the ugliest parts of our shared history.
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Hannah-Jones and Guy discuss bringing The 1619 Project to television, the importance of Black people sharing their own stories, and their hopes for audiences engaging with the project.
Awards Daily: Congratulations to you both on your Emmy nominations!
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Thank you! It’s so exciting and affirming. My family back home in Waterloo could not believe it, and I couldn’t believe it either. I certainly never thought, as a little Black girl from a small town, that one day I would have an Emmy nomination, and certainly not as a lifelong print reporter did I think I would have an Emmy nomination. We just hit the four-year anniversary of the project’s publication. And to have produced something that we’re still working on four years later, we’re still producing more facets of it. People are still talking about and engaging with it—It’s just beyond my wildest dreams. I’m just grateful.
Shoshana Guy: Of course, as someone who’s built my career in this medium, it’s a deep honor to be acknowledged. As Nikole and I were discussing, it’s not the reason to do the work, but it certainly is icing on the cake and affirms all of our hard efforts and all the blood, sweat, and tears, literally, that went into the project. It certainly feels very good to be honored alongside all these other really wonderful filmmakers.
AD: Talk to me about adapting this landmark work of written journalism for the screen. What was the main crux that you wanted to communicate visually?
SG: Obviously, the reason for creating this is to democratize the project, right? Nikole talks a lot about that, about how not everyone is going to necessarily read a book or read essays, but [television] is a democratizing medium. So we really looked at the base for the project that we already had. We had the podcasts, and we had the essays. We looked at the pieces that we thought would really resonate with our medium. One of the things is Nikole’s personal connection and using her family to really illustrate the larger picture of the experience of Black Americans. We knew we needed that piece.
As a team, we went through a redaction process where we were reading through the essays and pulling out the key points that we wanted to grapple with and infuse into the episodes.
And then it was really about finding the everyday Americans who really demonstrated the stories and reflected the experience of how the legacy of slavery is still with us. Finding folks who really inspired us and folks whose work, effort, and contribution to the country we really wanted to highlight. All those pieces laid our foundation, and then we got to work.
AD: One of the things that really struck me about the series is just how vulnerable it is. Nikole, you put your family front and center. Why did you decide to do that? You also interview Black Americans from across the country. As a journalist, how do you prepare for and approach those candid moments?
NHJ: So the vulnerability of showing my family, Shoshana and I had lots of conversations about that. As a journalist, and as a journalist who’s been kind of in the eye of the storm, I know what that can bring and how ugly people can be. And how people can scrutinize you. I was a little reticent and wanted to make sure I really prepared my family for what could come. Thank God it didn’t. It’s actually been amazing for them. I think we just realized that we needed a connective tissue between the episodes. Each episode, of course, tackles a different aspect of American life, and you meet different people, but to make it feel like it was one story, we needed a connection.
Even though I really didn’t want to expose so much of my personal family story as a storyteller, I had to defer because they were right. And it was an effective way of telling the story.
How did I prepare for the interviews? I mean, I’m just myself, right? I don’t try to come in like the person on high who’s there to extract something from you. Shoshana knows I share things about myself. I try to be the person who’s there to be open and be human with people as I’m asking them questions and not just trying to get information. I let people talk for a really long time. I don’t interrupt. I don’t try to move people on. I feel like sometimes journalists can be so transactional with people. You’re just never going to get people to let their guard down enough to be comfortable to really share and have that moment in doing so. So, I always just think, ‘How would I want someone to treat my mom if they were interviewing her?’ ‘Or anyone in my family?’
I just try to bring that authenticity. And if I’m willing to be vulnerable with someone, I think that then gives them permission to be vulnerable with me. But that’s not how I think a lot of journalists approach reporting. We want to be the authority figure. And that’s just never been my style.
AD: The 1619 Project is both a historical document and a look at contemporary America and how the legacy of slavery still touches us today. How did you bring both of those ideas together visually?
SG: It was a long process. I mean, this project was in the works for nearly two years, which is both long and short. It sounds like a long time now. But, when we were in it, we’re like, ‘Oh, my God, we don’t have enough time.’
We don’t have enough time because it takes a long time to dig out the stories and to find just the right person to illustrate what it is that we are trying to do. But ultimately, we had a really amazing team. We really collaborated visually with our director of photography, Jerry Henry. He and the producers really thought of visual ideas and ways to highlight the efforts of Black Americans. I have to shout out the producers and the directors. We just spent a lot of time making phone calls, digging things out, and doing original reporting. So all those components came together.
NHJ: There was so much conversation and trying to figure out how you translate essays that are extremely dense, extremely dense with history, and find the right person who’s living now, who can kind of demonstrate this larger point that we’re trying to make. I have to echo Shoshana; every time we would have a production meeting, the producers would just come back with the most amazing finds. I think they were all excited to be able to really dig into this history in this way and see what was in the archives and see what history they could uncover. Or when they would find a real living person. I’ll never forget when Caitie came back and told us about MacArthur Cotton, and just his name alone is it is a journalist’s dream, right? MacArthur Cotton and you’re talking about a veteran of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement.
The name is just perfect. And then she tells his story, and we’re like, ‘Oh my God, we have to interview this man.’ And there were just so many moments like that. And I think it’s because the production teams are so passionate. Not just about producing a documentary, but this particular documentary, because of its subject matter, there was such a sense of mission. They brought something extra to this, and I think it shows.
SG: I think that’s also just a reflection of Black people telling Black stories. When we get to tell our own stories, we’re just intrinsically invested in those stories. I mean, it’s our stories, it’s our families, it’s our experience. The whole team was just incredibly dedicated to the effort.
AD: Absolutely. I’m always interested in the relationship between a creator and their creation. Nikole, having been with The 1619 Project for so many years and iterations—are there still elements that surprise you? Are you still discovering new insights? And Shoshana, how has seeing the project out into the world further shaped your view of it?
NHJ: Yeah, The beauty of this work is, you could study this for the rest of your life. There’s always more to learn and always new connections to be made, and more information to be had. Something you thought you knew, only to realize you didn’t really know it.
I was, of course, very nervous about translating [The 1619 Project] into a medium that I don’t have expertise in. And it’s not like I just turned it over and was hands-off and said, ‘Come back when you’re done and show it to me.’ Shoshana and I immediately developed. I would say a supreme trust in each other, and we worked extremely collaboratively.
I never let it go. I was involved in every part of making this, except the technical aspects. But that was really important.
I’ll say that the story that stands out to me the most that I had never known is the story of Mustapha Shaw; it’s such an amazing, like, made-for-TV story, except it’s true. And I think that’s just the beauty of this work. That’s why I love the type of journalism that I’m able to do, which is to tell modern-day stories that are deeply immersed in history. You’re just always discovering these amazing people that really transformed the way you see the Black experience in the American experience.
It’s one thing to hear stories of runaways or suffering. It’s another thing to hear the story of a man who, when you’re coming to tell him what to do, he’s showing up with two pistols in his hand and a rifle, right? I think it expands our vision of Black humanity. And there were just so many moments like that.
SG: To me, it was like finding a treasure. You’re like, ‘Oh my God, this existed.’ And being able to give life again and honor people who lived, whose stories may have been completely forgotten had we not gotten a chance to speak their names again. So it’s a really special experience.
AD: And Nikole, you mentioned being in the eye of the storm in terms of the public’s reaction to The 1619 Project. I’ve also heard you describe yourself as a pessimist. You and I very much have that in common. I have to ask, what’s something you feel hopeful about at this moment?
NHJ: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot to be pessimistic about, and I don’t tend to be a hopeful person by nature. It actually will not sound hopeful, but it is; the backlash to the project, in some ways, gives me hope just because it means that the people on the wrong side of history are afraid. And there are a lot of Americans who are open to the arguments of the project, who want to better understand their country, who realize, as my students tell me all the time, ‘I’ve been lied to. Why don’t I know any of this stuff?’ And they’re right. If people didn’t want to have a different understanding of America, the project would not be attacked the way that it is. I run into young folks,12-year-olds, who’ve read parts of the project. How can you not feel hopeful about that? There are enough Americans who really want to grapple with the ugly truths of our country in order to try to build a better one. Now, unfortunately, they don’t seem to be winning right now. But we’re not going to be able to move forward until we acknowledge the truth. And I just think that the success of the book version of this project and the success of the documentary shows that there is at least a significant number of us who want to grapple with who we are and try to build a better country. So that’s as much hope as I can give you.
AD: Shoshana, what comes to mind for you?
SG: I believe in the power of Black people. I feel like If my ancestors could continue to be eternally hopeful in all of the moments throughout time, then certainly I can muster up some hope for what’s in our future.
I think this project is really about resistance. And I think we have to continue the fight that we’ve been fighting for centuries now. And so I do have hope in resistance and hope in continuing the fight that our ancestors started from the very beginning. We have to keep a bright spot on the horizon despite what it might look like in this moment.
The 1619 Project is streaming on Hulu.