Watching Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Hulu-produced documentary sequence The 1619 Challenge, primarily based on a sequence of New York Times Magazine essays by Hannah-Jones and different writers become a bestselling book, I’m reminded of two different literary situations.
I believe first of Shakespeare’s King Lear, who, after having realized of betrayal by his daughters Regan and Gonorill, cautions himself that he can’t bear to assume too lengthy in regards to the implications of such a familial double-crossing. “That manner,” he warns himself, “insanity lies.”
Second, I consider a minor character in Richard Wright’s Native Son. In that novel is a Black man who has apparently gone mad in his quest to uncover the complete extent of white dominance over Black Individuals. “You’re afraid of me!” the person shouts in a jail cell. “That’s why you place me in right here! However I’ll inform the President anyhow! I’ll inform ’im you make us reside in such crowded situations on the South Aspect that one out of each ten of us is insane! I’ll inform ’im that you simply dump all of the stale meals into the Black Belt and promote them for greater than you will get anyplace else! I’ll inform ’im you tax us, however you received’t construct hospitals!” The person goes on till he’s instructed to pipe down. Ultimately, he’s straitjacketed and carted away, by no means to be heard from once more.
Watching this six-part documentary sequence, I started to really feel somewhat like Lear raving on the wind and Wright’s “mad” character discovering extra treachery than he beforehand thought possible.
And it’s not that a lot of the knowledge is news to me; it’s that, as soon as it’s all packaged collectively in a six-hour sequence, enlivened by interviews and supported by numerous items of proof, the knowledge turns into a burden, a reification of my data of Good and Evil, with further emphasis on the latter. Briefly, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Challenge is an exquisitely informative downer, however there’s sufficient hope and energy all through to make it an virtually needed watch.
The sequence, just like the essays and guide that got here earlier than it, tackles a number of topics which have seemingly most affected Black American descendents of chattel slavery since that first group of enslaved Africans was deposited on colonial Virginia’s shores in 1619. These subjects vary from the lethal critical, like concern, race, and justice, to the near-benign, like music and democracy. Every subject is afforded an episode to cowl it, and the thesis is usually this: chattel slavery of Black our bodies was this nation’s unique sin, and postlapsarian America doesn’t have many establishments or cultural exports that weren’t in some critical manner affected by it. Certainly, Hannah-Jones’ narration tells us “virtually nothing” in America has been left untouched by the legacy of slavery cast in 1619.
Every episode begins with a subject after which traces its family tree again to slavery, taking time to watch how every part finished up to now has implications on the current. On this manner, the sequence carefully follows William Faulkner’s adage that the previous isn’t lifeless. As he says, “it’s not even previous.”
Episode 1 offers with American democracy, tracing Black individuals’s involvement with civic obligation — as a lot as it’s accessible to them at any given time limit — from Reconstruction-era Constitutional amendments, to Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement, to the present combat for voting rights in the 21st century. Whereas giving an outline of previous hardwon struggles regarding who’s a real citizen of this nation as proven by their skill to vote, the episode additionally takes an in depth curiosity in following Black Georgians combating voting legal guidelines not too long ago challenged as discriminatory by the Justice Department.
The documentary as a complete is a private venture in each sense, for every episode additionally has Hannah-Jones taking a look at how Black historical past has affected her and her household. Within the first episode, she wonders how her father, an Military veteran, might have maintained his patriotism regardless of being born on a sharecropping plantation in segregated Mississippi. She wonders how he might have proven a lot deference for the flag, ensuring the household’s personal stars-and-stripes was flown each day and stored in immaculate situation.
Her confusion about that is proven to be legitimate, as this episode exhibits us the efforts of Macarthur Cotton working with the Pupil Nonviolent Coordinating Committee within the Sixties to register Black Southerners to vote. We see how, only for trying to get a county with a majority Black inhabitants to have greater than 5% of that inhabitants on its voter rolls, Cotton finally ends up imprisoned and tortured in situations that might make the jailers at Guantanamo Bay blush. Hannah-Jones tells us, “It’s Black individuals who have been perfecters of our democracy,” however our function in democracy’s enchancment has left scars, each on the psyche and the flesh.
The next episodes, “Race,” “Music,” “Capitalism,” “Worry,” and “Justice,” comply with related beats: a gift downside is offered, its foundations in Black debasement are explored, and the viewers is enlightened on the steps taken to ameliorate it up to now and at present.
The one episode that strays from this barely is “Music,” which is essentially the most brazenly celebratory of the bunch whereas nonetheless noting the pervasiveness of white co-option and appropriation of Black music. “Music” comes halfway by way of the sequence’ run and is, at the least for me, an exquisite reprieve from seeming onslaught of details that should be addressed however are sometimes painful to acknowledge.
The episode which may show to be essentially the most divisive, nonetheless, is “Capitalism.” The thesis right here is that, in America, race is inextricable from capitalist exploitation, and that is most clearly illustrated by race-based slave labor creating a lot of America’s early wealth. The controversy might find yourself being sparked as a result of, whereas it is extremely simple to say racism is unhealthy, to say capitalism is unhealthy, particularly in America, stinks of communism. It’s redolent of a radical leftism that even Democrats over 30 are suspicious of for its proximity to — gasp! — socialism. The guide model of The 1619 Challenge caught flak from conservatives who hated its racial messaging. This episode would possibly divide left-leaning individuals who have differing views on wealth redistribution, the efficacy of socialism, and the morality of American capitalism.
The 1619 Challenge ought to be proven in lecture rooms, but it surely in all probability received’t be. Many issues that ought to be will not be. The venture as a complete is controversial as a result of it dares to query the American “bootstraps” shibboleth that locations blame for wealth inequality, stunning toddler mortality charges, and mass incarceration on people somewhat than establishments.
I can’t say that is essentially the most formally progressive documentary I’ve ever seen, however the content material, as brutal as it may be at occasions, makes the viewing value it. Sure, that manner lies insanity, but it surely’s worse to faux the issue doesn’t exist.
The 1619 Challenge premieres Thursday, January 26, 2023, on Hulu.