December 8, 2023

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‘1619 Project’ Standout Episode Is Infuriatingly Timely

When “The 1619 Project” was released in the New York Times in 2019, it included an essay from Princeton University sociology professor Dr. Matthew Desmond on how enslaved labor paved the way for the U.S. economic system. An image of a plantation’s ledger page from 1850 accompanied the article. Rendered in a looping, cursive hand, it is a list of slaves owned by the Pleasant Hill plantation in Mississippi and their worth at the beginning and end of the year. Readers could leave the tidy disquietude of that image behind as they moved down the page, but in Hulu’s new adaptation of the comprehensive reframing of the guiding role slavery and its effects have had on American history, journalist, series creator, and host Nikole Hannah-Jones goes back to that book, flips through its pages of information on slave output, and lets their lines of data linger onscreen — then director Christine Turner cuts to the inside of a sprawling Amazon distribution center. We watch as workers bustle amid stacked towers of products and conveyor belts teeming with boxes, where they are expected to locate and pack up thousands of items during a ten-hour shift. We’re shown how the cruelty of endless productivity endures, and the episode, “Capitalism,” which arrives at a time when the U.S. economic system is failing so many, is a standout because it won’t let us scroll past the point.

Named after the year that “20 and odd” Africans arrived in Virginia as the colony’s first slaves, “The 1619 Project” was a cultural reset that declared its intention to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” In the years since its publication, Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize, criticism came in from all sides (politicians and professors, the left and the right), a culture war over critical race theory continues, and now the Hulu docuseries is adapting some of the project’s 18 essays into six episodes: “Democracy,” “Race,” “Music,” “Capitalism,” “Fear,” and “Justice.” (“Democracy” and “Race” debuted on January 26, “Music” and “Capitalism” on February 2; “Fear” and “Justice” will debut on February 9.) Each hour-long episode moves between the deep-dive backward gaze of the essays, the questions they raise about slavery’s centrality to the ensuing American experience, and the contemporaneous answers Hannah-Jones and the docuseries’ rotating team of directors provide in this adaptation.

It’s an ambitious attempt, and viewers who didn’t read the original New York Times package are in for an edifying ride (and a consistently devastating one, especially in “Fear,” which covers centuries of police-sanctioned, societally excused violence). Yet the show can’t help but feel scattered. More than 300 years of history, a reassessment of what it all means, and a recontextualization of that reassessment aren’t condensable into six hours, especially when most installments ping-pong between focus areas. “Democracy” speeds from the divide between British loyalists, Black slaves, and insurgent colonists during the American Revolution to present-day voter disenfranchisement and restrictive voting laws, and it ends on a suggestion that the U.S. will reach the status of a “true democracy” only after a demographic shift toward a more non-white population — but that assertion feels a bit thin without conversations about abolishing the Electoral College or expanding the Supreme Court, neither of which The 1619 Project touches upon. “Race” foregrounds the experiences of Black and POC Americans in unbalanced or outmoded systems (a Black mother harmed by a white doctor, an interracial couple pushing back against being forced to identify their races on the application for a marriage certificate), and in doing so, it emphasizes the surreality of America’s obsession with the color of someone’s skin — though this point seems like it should address the country’s complicated relationship with immigration, too, which The 1619 Project doesn’t do.

Yet tucked within these episodes are fascinating observations and revelations. In “Music,” New York Times critic-at-large and “American Popular Music” essay author Wesley Morris notes the role television played in normalizing Black music to white audiences. In “Fear,” Yale University associate professor Dr. Elizabeth Hinton traces police militarization against Black protestors back to the Vietnam War’s leftover weaponry being gifted to municipal departments, a practice that surged again after 9/11. Any one of these micro subjects could take center stage, and The 1619 Project has a frustratingly counterintuitive tendency to move rapidly and generally, as if racing both to justify itself and maintain audience interest (and to almost exclusively feature people who agree with its mission, denying viewers the opportunity to see how Hannah-Jones would interrogate those who question her project’s assertions). But when that pace lets up, The 1619 Project shows how sharply incisive and rightfully combative it can be, especially in “Capitalism,” which resonates with infuriating timeliness.

In adapting the essay, Hannah-Jones replaces some of Desmond’s worldliness with family-mindedness, swapping his data about how poorly the U.S. rates worldwide in worker protection with stories about the uphill battle her own relatives have faced in factory, retail, and service jobs that refuse to pay a living wage. The episode loses something by abandoning Desmond’s damningly precise language, such as his explanation of America’s system as “low-road capitalism,” a term used by Dr. Joel Rogers of the University of Wisconsin-Madison to describe how corporations have been allowed to “incentivize through punishments, not promotions.” But in focusing on Amazon, its workers’ much-challenged unionization efforts, and the chasm between Jeff Bezos’s $100 billion-plus fortune and the warehouse and delivery workers constantly advocating for higher wages to reflect the demands placed upon them, The 1619 Project uses the TV medium to its advantage, with interviews, archival clips, and inside-factory footage adding new urgency to what the Times put on the page.

Photo: Hulu

Starting “Capitalism” off with Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” and footage from Bezos’s July 2021 suborbital visit is a nicely smirking touch, as is the full-circle moment later when Amazon Labor Union activist Chris Smalls gleefully tells a reporter after a history-making unionization win that while Bezos was “up there, we were signing people up.” Those images from within Amazon — the stacked towers of yellow bins that form makeshift cubicles for workers and twist them into body-bending positions cited as seriously hazardous by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — are presented alongside an interview with the union’s Derrick Palmer, who helped lead the organizing effort at Staten Island’s JFK8 facility and speaks about management’s expectation that workers “pick” 400 items per hour, or 4,000 to 5,000 items in a ten-hour shift. While the “picking” connection The 1619 Project makes between acres of plantation cotton and acres of products spread throughout a distribution center is a little too winking, it’s undeniably effective: Look at how America worked people to the bone then, and look at how America works people to the bone now.

While Desmond’s essay doesn’t address Amazon in particular, “Capitalism” provides a real-life example for his point that slavery laid the groundwork for a “union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs, and normalized insecurity, a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending.” We’re reminded of how desperately states woo Amazon and how dangerous its increased monopolization of the U.S. economy may be. We see the materials and videos Amazon released to discourage union membership. We hear from activists who experienced the election meddling that Amazon has been called out for over and over. (The company declined an interview with Hannah-Jones for the docuseries, instead providing a statement on how it is “committed to giving our employees the resources they need to be successful.”) Hannah-Jones makes a point to speak to Brown University professor Dr. Seth Rockman, who notes that while the U.S. in particular suffers from “the poverty of the English language when it comes to words for labor exploitation” and too often defers to slavery as the term to describe these conditions, that doesn’t negate how this country’s largest, most influential companies use “coercive mechanisms” to continue to extract labor.

The direness of this past January for workers in tech, journalism, entertainment, and publishing, along with the suggestion that this will be a year of widespread mass layoffs, adds extra credence to The 1619 Project’s declaration that the American system has always been a race to the bottom, the American dream of up-by-your-bootstraps meritocracy a myth. In a country where 50 percent of families own only 1 percent of its wealth, where CEOs and average workers are paid at a rate of 670 to 1, and where public support for unions is at a nearly 60-year high, something has to change. In Bates’s words, “We keep fighting, we keep fighting, we keep fighting.” Whatever other unevenness runs through The 1619 Project, “Capitalism” is a pressing reminder that we must find a way off the low road.

The 1619 Project began streaming on Hulu on January 26 with two episodes released weekly.