Oprah Winfrey, Lionsgate guide collaboration to produce "1619 Project" documentary targeted by Arkansas lawmakers

Oprah Winfrey, Lionsgate guide collaboration to produce "1619 Project" documentary targeted by Arkansas lawmakers

BCN Staff – March 5, 2021 — Billionairess Oprah Winfrey and movie entertainment giant Lionsgate are leading efforts to bring a movie concerning the 1619 Project soon to the TV screen amid an effort my Pro-Trump lawmakers in Arkansas and across the U.S. to block Black-centric teaching about the legacy of slavery and African American contributions to U.S. culture and history.

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams will produce and oversee a documentary series based on materials drawn from The New York Times Magazine and Nikole Hannah Jones’ acclaimed “The 1619 Project,” slated for a U.S. debut in the future on the Hulu.  The series is part of a distribution agreement between Lionsgate and Disney General Entertainment Content’s BIPOC Creator Initiative led by Tara Duncan, the companies announced today. 

Williams will direct the first episode and produce the series under his One Story Up production banner with producing partner and co-executive producer Geoff Martz in collaboration with Lionsgate Television, The New York Times and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films. Williams, an award-winning director, producer and writer, is the first African American director to win an Academy Award when he was awarded it for his short film “Music by Prudence.”

“‘The 1619 Project’ is an essential reframing of American history. Our most cherished ideals and achievements cannot be understood without acknowledging both systemic racism and the contributions of Black Americans. And this isn’t just about the past—Black people are still fighting against both the legacy of this racism and its current incarnation,” said Williams. “I am thrilled and grateful for the opportunity to work with The New York Times, Lionsgate Television, Harpo Films and Hulu to translate the incredibly important ‘The 1619 Project’ into a documentary series.”

Williams’ other notable projects include the Emmy Award-winning documentaries “Life, Animated” and “The Apollo”; the documentary “God Loves Uganda”; “American Jail”; and the Emmy-nominated, Webby Award-winning virtual reality experience “Traveling While Black.”

“I could not ask for a more gifted and committed storyteller to entrust “The 1619 Project” to than Roger Ross Williams,” said Hannah-Jones. “I have long admired the impact and authenticity of his filmmaking, and the fact that we’re working with Disney and Hulu aligns with our vision of partnering with the world’s greatest Black storytellers to bring this project to a global audience.”

“We worked hard to get everything right with our first offering,” said added Winfrey. “Adding the reach of Disney and its powerful brand to our collaboration, launching on a great premium platform like Hulu, and bringing together the creative resources of our friends at Lionsgate and The New York Times to support Nikole Hannah-Jones’ narrative and Roger Ross Williams’ vision is the perfect start to our partnership.” 

One of the most impactful and thought-provoking works of journalism of the past decade, The New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project” was a landmark undertaking that connected the centrality of slavery in U.S. history with an unflinching account of the brutal racism that endures in so many aspects of American life today. It was launched in August 2019 on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies that would become the United States. It examines the legacy of slavery in America and how it shaped nearly all aspects of society, from music and law to education and the arts, and including the principles of our democracy itself. 

Last summer, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton of Little Rock took aim at the project and introduced the Saving American History Act of 2020, a bill that would prohibit the use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project by K-12 schools or school districts. Under his legislation, schools that teach the 1619 Project curriculum would also be ineligible for federal professional development grants.

“The New York Times’s 1619 Project is a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded. Not a single cent of federal funding should go to indoctrinate young Americans with this left-wing garbage,” said Cotton, calling the project revisionist history.

In early February, the Arkansas legislature filed a cookie-cutter version of legislation that Sen. Tom Cotton and other Republican lawmakers across the country said misrepresent U.S. history. However, following more than two hours of debate before the House Education Committee at the State Capitol, House Bill 1231 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-North Little Rock, failed to advance after a failed voice vote. The three-page bill specifically called for the prohibition or reduction of public funds to any Arkansas school teaching any curriculum related to the controversial 1619 Project, the long-form journalism project developed by New York Times staff writers.

Lowery, who has also sponsored several bills that critics say is aimed at making it more difficult for Black citizens to vote, alleged that he and many of the bill’s co-sponsors of Project 1619 legislation had gone through the pain of receiving “hundreds of emails” referring to them as racists and bigots “just because I want to have a complete conversation about what is historical truth.”

Oprah Winfrey, Lionsgate and The New York Times first announced the wide-ranging partnership to develop “The 1619 Project” into an expansive portfolio of feature films, television series and other content for a global audience in July 2020, the same time that Cotton introduced his bill in Congress.

“‘The 1619 Project’ is a revelatory master class in the power of history,” stated Duncan, “Nikole Hannah-Jones’ extraordinary work speaks to contemporary America and reveals how our past is ever present, but more importantly, why engaging in a much-needed dialogue about our origins has the power to create healing and a meaningful positive impact on our collective future. It’s an honor to join forces with Nikole, the enormously gifted Roger Ross Williams, Oprah Winfrey and our partners at Lionsgate and The New York Times to bring this new chapter of ‘The 1619 Project’ to life.” 

“Our goal has been to find the right creative voices to translate Nikole Hannah-Jones’ vision into memorable television, film and other new forms, and just the right partners to champion our work,” said Caitlin Roper, executive producer, Scripted Film & TV at The New York Times. “Roger Ross Williams is an iconic documentary filmmaker, and alongside our incredible partners at Hulu, we’ll really be able to expand the scope and reach of the project.”

The docuseries will be the first offering from Lionsgate’s collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, staff writer at The New York Times and one of the nation’s foremost investigative journalists. The New York Times and media titan Oprah Winfrey will develop Ms. Hannah-Jones’ landmark issue of The New York Times Magazine, “The 1619 Project,” and hit New York Times podcast, “1619,” into an expansive portfolio of feature films, television series, location-based exhibitions and other content for a global audience. 

“We’re thrilled to bring aboard world-class Black storytellers and platform partners who can do justice to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ powerful journalistic masterpiece,” said Lionsgate Senior Vice President and Head of Alternative Programming Alice Dickens-Koblin. “It takes content as special as ‘The 1619 Project’ to bring singular talents like Roger Ross Williams, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Oprah Winfrey together, and we’re delighted to partner with our friends at Disney and Hulu to share this compelling story with a global audience.”

“‘The 1619 Project’ has helped frame our understanding of U.S. history and contemporary society, elevating an under-reported, systemic story of vital importance,” said Kelly Campbell, president of Hulu. “We’re honored to be the exclusive streaming home to this transformative documentary series along with our partners at The New York Times, Lionsgate Television and Harpo Films.”

In addition, award-winning journalist and showrunner Shoshana Guy will serve as showrunner.  Guy most recently was showrunner for Vice TV’s late-night series “Cari and Jemele: Won’t Stick to Sports.”  She spent more than a decade as an anchor producer for Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams at NBC News. Her work at NBC focused on issues of race and justice, including coverage of the defunding of the Camden Police Department, which earned her a Peabody Award. 

Her work has also been recognized with two Emmy nominations for her coverage of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and her in-depth reporting on a year in the life of Black high school students in Jackson, Mississippi. Kathleen Lingo, editorial director for film and TV at The New York Times, will also executively produce for The Times.

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