Oprah Winfrey and Nikole Hannah-Jones Discuss Honoring Their Ancestors With ‘The 1619 Project’ at L.A. Premiere

“The 1619 Project” creator Nikole Hannah-Jones needed just one word to describe what it was like to pose on the red-white-and-blue carpet with Oprah Winfrey.

“Insane!” Hannah-Jones told Variety as she made her way down the line of reporters outside the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles on Thursday night. “This was a lot, but it feels amazing.”

The journalist — a “print reporter” she likes to note, meaning she’s not quite used to the “lights, camera, action” style that TV news requires — cut a striking figure on the carpet, wearing an emerald green velvet gown which set off her signature red hair, plus her signature diamond necklace with “Nikole” written in cursive and custom gold “1619” hoop earrings.

Photographers called for her to look this way, that way, and “over the shoulder” as she posed with her collaborators, executive producer and director Roger Ross Williams and showrunner Shoshana Guy. But when Winfrey — who is also an executive producer on the series — hit the carpet, it was like someone turned up the volume as they flew into a frenzy.

“What a night,” Hannah-Jones tweeted early Friday morning, reposting a video from the red carpet with Winfrey. “Just a girl from Waterloo trying to make her ancestors proud.”

It would suffice to say that the experience of “The 1619 Project” has been quite a rush. It’s been four years since Hannah-Jones pitched her editors at The New York Times Magazine on the long-form piece, which analyzes the socioeconomic and political practices that began with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619 and ripple through modern society. 

That work has since been translated into a book, a children’s book, a podcast and now adapted into a Hulu docuseries, which began streaming just 18 hours before the red carpet began.

“I could not have imagined it would have this impact, and I certainly couldn’t have foreseen a night like this,” she said, adding, “I just feel the ancestors tonight. My work is trying to vindicate, to some degree, everything that they had to suffer, so it feels amazing.”

Inside the theater, Tara Duncan, president of Disney’s Onyx Collective, which produced the series, introduced Hannah-Jones to the stage as “one of the greatest voices of our generation.”

“By centering the contributions of Black Americans in our country’s history, ‘The 1619 Project’ asks us to shine a light on the consequences that slavery has in our everyday lives,” Duncan told the crowd. “It is my hope that this series will engage, empower and encourage audiences to reflect on these inspirational and at times difficult truth in service of a provocative solution-oriented discourse and healing.”

Attendees watched the first episode of the docuseries, titled “Democracy,” which is based on one of Hannah-Jones’ essays from “The 1619 Project.” The guest list for the event was an assembly of journalists, entertainers and activists including Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Bill Duke, Tiffany Haddish, Herbie Hancock, Malika Haqq, Van Jones, Boris Kodjoe, Jason Lee, Loni Love, Nina Parker, Ashlee Marie Preston, Joy-Ann Reid, Angela Rye, Kendrick Sampson, Jurnee Smollett and Glynn Turman.

Following the screening, Winfrey led Hannah-Jones, Williams and Guy in a Q&A about the episode and the challenges of making the series.

During the conversation, Winfrey revealed the moment in the series that made her most emotional: when Hannah-Jones pored over a bundle of slave ledgers, which tracked the movements of the enslaved people on a plantation. Winfrey shared that she too has been affected by seeing those records and keeps a ledger in her home, which she basically has as an altar.

“I visit the names and speak the names out loud and look at that moment where shoes and cattle and wagons were costing more than human beings,” Winfrey explained. “I can see that you were very moved by that. [But] there are so many moments in the series where you get to literally speak to the elders, and hear from their own words and through their own voices, what they’ve been through.”

Hannah-Jones then recounted her experience interviewing MacArthur Cotton, which she told Variety was her most emotional moment making the series.

“We’re losing that generation that was the generation that literally democratized our country,” she told Winfrey. “They don’t get the credit. There is no military pension for having to fight you own countrymen for the rights that you were fighting for other people abroad to have.”

She noted: “All of us who worked on this had such a sense of the debt that we owe to our ancestors, and trying through this documentary to play some role in trying to pay that back. I came away from all those interviews, just knowing this is ancestral work.”

The conversation also touched on Guy and Williams’ process of translating Hannah-Jones’ written work for the screen and finding the series’ key images, as well as the pushback the filmmakers were bracing to receive — “My bourbon cabinet is fully stocked. Only half-joking,” Hannah-Jones quipped, before explaining that “everything that could have been said [against the project], has been said many times.”

But before wrapping up, Winfrey called out the attendance of a young man named Carter, who was photographed for the series’ marketing campaign. His image, with the American flag draped over his shoulders, was featured on posters and billboards across the country, including one on Fairfax Ave., just a half mile from the Academy Museum.

“Our poster child is here tonight,” Winfrey exclaimed, pointing him out in the audience, where he sat next to his parents. “Are you impressed with yourself?” she asked the young man, who gleefully replied, “Yeah!”

To wrap up the conversation, Winfrey asked Hannah-Jones what she hopes the audience takes from the series.

“I just want us to be liberated by the knowledge of what we were built upon,” she said. “Because if you understand that all the inequality we see — that the divisiveness, the fact that one political party doesn’t seem to believe in democracy anymore — that this whole society was created that it’s not innate. It’s not inevitable. … Then you know that it can be deconstructed, that we don’t have to have this society — we can choose something else.”

“The 1619 Project” is now streaming on Hulu.

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