How “The 1619 Project” Ended Up At Hulu (And What Bob Iger Had To Do With It)

“When I first listened to the podcast, first read it, I felt so seen,” executive producer Shoshana Guy said of The 1619 Project. The six-part Hulu documentary series from Onyx Collective is adapted from Nikole Hannah-Jones’ series of articles for The New York Times, along with its collected volume, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, and companion podcast. The series begins streaming on Thursday, January 27th, and the creative team recently reunited for a TCA press conference about the series. “I never would have imagined that I'd be showrunning the series. And then I had the opportunity of working with Roger [Ross Williams] on the series High on the Hog. When I got the call that I was going to interview, I was, like, ‘Oh, this is mine. I'm meant to do this.’” The divine feeling of being born for the project was heightened by the fact that both Shoshana Guy and Nikole Hannah-Jones have roots in the small town of Waterloo, Iowa.

(Stewart Cook/Hulu)

(Stewart Cook/Hulu)

“I had never heard of the date 1619,” revealed executive producer Roger Ross Williams, who directed the first episode and was shocked when he read the first part of The 1619 Project about Democracy. “It was really the way [Nikole] presented her argument in writing that essay. And I'm not the only one, because she won the Pulitzer Prize, but it just hit me in a different way that I had never felt before. It hit a different part of my brain. It just opened my eyes. And I said to myself, ‘I have to be a part of this.’ I had done stuff for The New York Times, but I was determined. And I began a campaign, a campaign to become a part of this project.” That campaign also allowed Roger to work with Oprah Winfrey, who serves as a producer. “[She] was incredibly involved in the development in the beginning and really passionate about it.”

For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the series feels like a natural jump from the podcast, although it at times took her out of her comfort zone. “As journalists, we know there's a great vulnerability in exposing your family, telling those personal stories,” she said about opening up her life for the cameras. “This experience has certainly taught me even more humility about what we're asking other people to do for us as journalists all the time. It took some convincing, and there were certainly negotiations about how much, whom in my family would feature. I remember we wanted to film a barbecue, and I was, like, ‘We're not doing that with my family.’”

“When the original project published, we were approached by several studios about turning The 1619 Project into TV and film,” Nikole explained about how the show ended up at Hulu. “We ultimately signed the development deal with Lionsgate. And, then, we knew that one of the first TV and film offerings we wanted to come out with would be a documentary series. It's the most closely aligned iteration, of course, of the original project. So we took the project out to market, and we ultimately went with Disney and Onyx Collective and Hulu for a number of reasons: one, its really unparalleled reach because of all of the different aspects of the Disney company. Bob Iger was president [CEO] at the time. He is back in that role. And it was clear that he had a strong belief in the project and we were going to get the resources that we needed to produce the work that we wanted to produce.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones also explained that while The 1619 Project is about how Black Americans have shaped our country, this is something that all Americans should see. “You can't understand the story of America without understanding the story of slavery and Black Americans. I think it's really important that when we set the tone for what this documentary series is, that this is not a documentary series about Black people. It's a documentary series about America. And all of us Americans should come away with a better understanding of the country that we live in.”

You can better understand America when The 1619 Project premieres on January 26th, only on Hulu.

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