Collective currents: The Lavender Tube on 'The 1619 Project' and 'The Last of Us'

  • by Victoria A. Brownworth
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023
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A scene from 'The 1619 Project'
A scene from 'The 1619 Project'

TV should provide more for Black History Month than videos of the latest police murders of unarmed Black people and the gutting funerals that follow, like the Tyre Nichols funeral which PBS has on YouTube.

Must-see TV for Black History Month begins with "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story," a 2021 anthology of essays and poetry by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and MacArthur fellow at the center of the conservative firestorm over Critical Race Theory. Her writing "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' history."

"The 1619 Project" is named for the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia. Now Hannah-Jones has crafted a six-part docuseries on this history of Black America, which is the history of America. The Hulu series is an on-screen adaptation and expansion of Hannah-Jones's 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series, which has since also included her best-selling book, a podcast and controversial school curriculum.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of 'The 1619 Project' and host/creator of the Hulu miniseries  

Hosted by Hannah-Jones, the series features some of the journalists and historians who contributed to the original "1619 Project." But the docuseries is also new and freshly imagined: a collaboration among Hannah-Jones, executive producer Oprah Winfrey and a team of producers and writers led by the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams.

The new format created new story lines, added new reporting and culled new voices, including the civil rights activist MacArthur Cotton and pop-music pioneer Nile Rodgers. The series is divided into individual segments: Democracy, Race, Capitalism, Music, Fear and Justice.

The long-version Hulu trailer comes with a warning that it is only for mature audiences.

But are the violence and language in that trailer any more disturbing than what we've witnessed on the evening news in recent weeks as the tapes of Tyre Nichols's killing were released? Isn't violence against Black Americans a core aspect of our collective — and current — history? Since 2020 and the murder of George Floyd, more than 3,530 Americans have been killed by police, with a disproportionate number being Black.

These are some quotes we culled from the series, as context:

"Democracy is a fight. It will always be a fight."
"One of our major parties is no longer fully committed to democracy."
"Black women today suffer the highest infant mortality rates in the industrialized world."
"Reparations is about repair." "It's a debt that's overdue."
"It cannot be overstated just how much violence Black Americans were subjected to."

The imagery of Hulu's "The 1619 Project" is by turns beautiful and stark, the interviews by turns colloquial, warm, engaging to confrontational and angry, at times so intense, you squirm in your seat.

Hannah-Jones talked to Gayle King about "The 1619 Project on CBS News.

On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Hannah-Jones said, "A free society does not ban books." She explains what "The 1619 Project" is all about and gives Colbert her take on why 14 states have banned or attempted to ban teaching it in schools, most recently Ron DeSantis in Florida.

Not surprisingly, the conservative reviews have excoriated the series. Armond White (who is Black), wrote a particularly vicious long-form piece on the series in The National Review titled "Oprah Revives the 1619 Project Fabrications." White reduced the MacArthur Fellow to a "fuschia-haired crackpot" and "black Marxist" (he does not capitalize Black as is standard newspaper style) and says the format "conforms to the pop sentimentality of Afro-Am-studies curricula." Yikes.

White also had strong words for Oprah, first slamming her queer-friendly series "Queen Sugar" and the Meghan and Harry interview. White said, "Oprah's involvement in this scam reveals her menace. The 1619 Project is part of how she permits women to be termites — stealth warriors in the undoing of American media, society, and now history."

Wow. Now you know you want to watch. "The 1619 Project" is streaming on Hulu and the book is available everywhere.

Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal in a promotional photo for 'The Last of Us'  

The Last of Us
"If you don't think there's hope for the world, why bother going on?" So says Ellie, the main character in HBO's post-apocalyptic drama television series, "The Last of Us." Joel says to her, "You keep going for family." Ellie looks at him and says, "I'm not family?" to which Joel replies, "No. You're cargo."

That shattering exchange is indicative of the complicated relationships and emotions at the heart of "The Last of Us." The series is based on the 2013 video game developed by Neil Druckmann at Naughty Dog that sold some 20 million copies. Druckmann also co-created and wrote the HBO series.

"The Last of Us" is set in 2023, twenty years into a global pandemic caused by a mass fungal infection, which forces its hosts to transform into zombie-like creatures. The main story is that of the 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) who, because she is immune to the fungus, could be the hope for humanity and a cure. Joel (Pedro Pascal) is a smuggler tasked with escorting Ellie out of a quarantine zone and across a post-apocalyptic United States. As they travel, stuff happens.

So there are some layers of queering going on in this series. Ramsey, who has been acting since she was a toddler, was dressed in some very cool leather garb on a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! which led us to thinking that the "Game of Thrones" alum was maybe a tad gay.

In an interview with The New York Times last month, Ramsey, now 19, said she identifies as gender-fluid.

Ramsey has been bullied mercilessly online for her role in "The Last of Us," and the interview details how she's been attacked for her looks, her acting, her very personhood, which was heartbreaking to read as in the interview we saw, she seemed lovely and real and astute.

Ramsey told the Times that she doesn't care which pronouns are used to refer to her. "I'm very much just a person. Being gendered isn't something that I particularly like, but in terms of pronouns, I really couldn't care less."

Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman in 'The Last of Us'  

Embedded in the tale of Ellie and Joel is the unlikely love story of two bearded 50somethings, Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), a pair of survivalists living in an isolated town.

Bartlett, who also co-starred in the ill-fated but compelling "Looking," came out as gay eons ago. During a 2021 interview about "The White Lotus," in which he starred as Armond, Bartlett said that coming out was never an option for him. He said, "I didn't feel like I really had an alternative. I just never felt I could ever be anything but myself."

Offerman, who has been married to "Will & Grace" alum Megan Mullaly for 20 years, played Ron Swanson on the popular "Parks and Recreation" through the NBC series' seven seasons.

"The Last of Us" is not lateral to "The Walking Dead" or "Fear the Walking Dead." Rather it's about loneliness and longing and the ways in which we try to make sense of ourselves in an often barren emotional landscape. Offerman and Bartlett are unlikely heroes of love and community, symbols of how to be in a world where nothing and no one can be trusted and survival is an overwhelming task. Druckmann has said he is a regular advocate of gender equality in video games, citing Anita Sarkeesian as an influence.

There are spoilers galore online for episode 3 in which Bill and Frank debut, but we suggest you watch the series to see how the episode and the placement of Bill and Frank evolves. It's truly beautiful to see these middle-aged men in the midst of a harrowing dystopia loving each other in big and small ways. It will — it did us — take your breath away for sheer loveliness.

Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett talk about their love story in the "The Last of Us" in the video above, but we recommend watching first. Experiencing the freshness and newness and surprise of their coupling is important. "The Last of Us" is streaming and has nine episodes. The series was just signed for a second season.

Spark it
On a last note; out gay filmmaker, writer, actor, Renaissance man John Waters loves to break the rules and make you laugh. Listen to Waters explore the creative process behind his first novel in the newest episode of "Creative Spark" as part of PBS's American Masters series.

For the dystopian and the drama, fictional and not, you know you really must stay tuned.

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