Irrespective of the way you measure it, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Challenge was an earth-shaking factor when it premiered in The New York Occasions in 2019. It gained a Pulitzer Prize. It sparked dialog. It generated waves of backlash from individuals who completely, positively didn’t learn the complete 100-page assortment of essays.
It additionally provided a reminder of how successfully legacy media can nonetheless transfer the needle when it comes to discourse.
The 1619 Challenge
The Backside Line
Nonetheless provocative, however maybe behind the TV curve.
As a six-part Onyx Collective/Hulu sequence pushed by Hannah-Jones and govt produced by Oprah Winfrey, The 1619 Challenge proves one thing totally different. Nonetheless provocative the connections and contexts that Hannah-Jones and firm supplied have been throughout the print and on-line confines of The New York Occasions, tv has been tackling the bigger-picture matter in earnest (and with some success) for years. Hulu’s The 1619 Challenge stays cogent, well argued and persuasive, however in failing to sufficiently regulate its storytelling to the visible calls for and potentialities of TV, it fails to make itself important.
On the web page, The 1619 Challenge solid a protracted mental shadow, however on TV it’s within the shadow solid by Raoul Peck’s pugnacious Exterminate All of the Brutes, by Sophia Nahli Allison’s lyrical Esure on the Prize: Hallowed Floor, by a number of reveals from print transplant Sacha Jenkins (All the things’s Gonna Be All White) and by extra PBS documentaries than I care to rely. On this medium, the sport was already modified — showrunner Shoshanah Man labored on Netflix’s Excessive on the Hog, one other in all probability superior predecessor — and The 1619 Challenge is only a participant.
For individuals who missed out, the premise of the sequence is that the arrival of the primary slave ship within the colonies is a nationwide origin story of kinds. Opposite to claims from the political proper, the aim of the sequence was by no means to actually demand that “1776” be erased as a landmark, nor to make each white individual really feel just like the villain in our collective narrative. The purpose is that slavery, along with being our American authentic sin, was so potent that its tendrils impacted and contaminated each single facet of our nationwide life, from policing and the justice system to our notably brutal model of capitalism — and that failure to grasp that leaves us unable to maneuver ahead besides in willful ignorance.
Hulu’s 1619 Challenge takes Hannah-Jones’ personal background — she grew up in Iowa with a Black father and white mom, whereas her roots return to the racist coronary heart of Mississippi — as its backbone and is handiest when it feels most private. When she’s utilizing the lack of her grandmother’s hard-earned home as an instance the wrestle to determine generational wealth throughout the Black group or making her first pilgrimage to the ancestral land in Greenwood, Mississippi, there’s a compelling specificity to the sequence, one which places its curator’s imprint on the broader journalistic thesis. Extra often, although, every episode feels just like the summarizing of an essay, most from the unique 1619 assortment, which implies that a topic worthy of two hours or 10 hours is perhaps rushed by means of in 55 minutes, with little autobiographical notes scattered in.
Nowhere is that extra egregious than the “Music” episode, from an essay by Wesley Morris. Although it’s all the time edifying to listen to Morris focus on tradition, and the snippets of gospel, jazz, funk and hip hop make for simple viewing, every style is handled with barely a CliffNotes-worth of consideration. It’s at greatest a disappointingly superficial palate cleanser nestled in the midst of the in any other case severe sequence. Nothing within the episode’s aesthetic captures the power or pleasure of the mentioned aural experiences, and the dialogue strips away beneficial intersectionality, a recurring flaw all through the sequence. I get the sequence’ focus and respect it, however…speaking concerning the backlash towards disco completely when it comes to race, with out point out of sexuality?
The early episodes, together with “Democracy” and “Race,” are tormented by defective focus or questionably illustrative examples, and there’s a flatness to how each of these episodes are directed. The acquainted archival footage and barely edited conversations on park benches or pews are repetitive, and the traces of clever inspiration — like interpretative dancers popping up — uncommon. Despite the fact that Hannah-Jones is touring the nation for her interviews, all of it appears and feels the identical. But I nonetheless appreciated the concepts and among the structuring, just like the cautious categorization of voting-rights battles into historical historical past, partially remembered historical past and visceral current.
Fortuitously, The 1619 Challenge ends robust. “Worry,” from the essay by Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander, traces centuries of white insecurities and the fee in Black lives — from 18th-century slave revolts in Haiti to Emmett Until to George Zimmerman to newer examples of know-your-place aggression — with a bracing mix of the well known and under-reported. Then “Justice” makes its case for reparations with spectacular readability and decisive contempt for the kind of counter-arguments that say, “Why ought to anyone pay at the moment for issues that occurred 150 or 250 years in the past?” As a result of the issues that occurred 250 years in the past these taking place at the moment may be linked in a straight line.
It’s a transparent message, which isn’t the identical as being successfully delivered in good artwork. I feel the frustration one would possibly really feel watching this sequence stems extra from how often tv has already delivered this message effectively — significantly, take a look at Exterminate All of the Brutes and Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Floor — than from The 1619 Challenge doing it poorly.