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How a New Hulu Doc Chronicles the Birth, Rise and Backlash of Black Twitter

Prentice Penny had just wrapped the fifth and final season of Issa Rae’s Insecure and was awaiting its release on HBO when Wired senior writer Jason Parham published his definitive “A People’s History of Black Twitter” in July 2021. The three-part, 9,821-word series chronicles the evolution of the nebulous and influential collective of Black users on the platform now known as X, from an inciting event (the hashtag #UKnowUrBlackWhen) to its growing influence and respective backlash through the present.

For Penny, a multihyphenate talent whose work on such series as Insecure and Girlfriends had been elevated and celebrated by Black Twitter, adapting Parham’s articles into a colorful visual history through the documentary medium seemed like an exciting new challenge after spending much of his two decades in TV predominantly in the narrative comedy space with shows including Scrubs, Happy Endings and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

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The result is Hulu’s Black Twitter: A People’s History, Penny’s three-part docuseries based on Parham’s work. Set for a world premiere March 8 on SXSW’s opening night, the series pays homage to the diversity, spirit and impact of Black Twitter across subjects both comedic and serious, rejecting a chronological, anthropological approach for a more visually dynamic, emotionally engaging style organized by topic l. Exploring what made Twitter a unique home for the Black community, the series that unfolds like a coming-of-age story in the vein of Star Wars or The Matrix, according to its director.

A variety of voices from the titular online community appear to offer a fuller, unfiltered recounting of its democratizing effect, including Parham, stand-up comic W. Kamau Bell, The Read Podcast co-host Kid Fury, journalists Jemele Hill, Wesley Lowery and April Reign, authors Roxane Gay and Luvvie Ajayi, trans activist Raquel Willis, hashtag originators, academics, former members of Twitter’s leadership and more.

In three short hours, Penny captures Black Twitter’s ability to not only create and influence everything from hashtags (#BlackGirlMagic, #DemThrones), memes (Crying Jordan, Tiffany Pollard, Annalise Keating), social movements (Black Lives Matter and Oscars So White) and entertainment (Scandal, Zola), but turn online life into offline reality.

Ahead of its debut at SXSW, Penny spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about why this is his first major project since Insecure and how he captures the ways Black Americans harnessed technology and changed society.

Why did you want to make this your next major project after Insecure

I’ve been working on shows since 2004 like Girlfriends until Insecure which ended in 2021, 2022. I had done scripted comedy for a long time and on Insecure, when I became the showrunner, what I loved about that was, at the time, it was a risk because there was nothing out there like that. I felt creatively [Black Twitter] is important, and this was different from my past experience where I felt challenged again, and that was exciting. I always want to chase this feeling of being scared again, and not just feel like, ‘Oh I can do this in my sleep,’ because that’s when your work gets lazy. I wanted to find something that felt like that great challenge again and doc was a new thing for me.

I’ve never done a doc before, and when I think about filmmakers I really love, especially guys like Spike Lee, he obviously does his narrative stuff but then he does docs like When the Levees Broke [A Requiem in Four Acts] and other things. I want to challenge myself to do those things, too. I also wanted a break between the next thing. Everybody always compares the next thing to the last thing, so I wanted something that had a lot of dilenation from the early part of my career to what the next chapter will be. It was kind of all of those things, and Black Twitter is just something I love, so it felt like if I’m going to get into the unscripted or doc space, this was the perfect thing because I’m already participating and have an affiliation in it.

How did you decide what parts of Black Twitter’s history you were going to focus on and how you were going to move through that history? 

After reading Jason’s article, one of the things that I found as a fun challenge was how do you tell a story about this really amorphous thing? It’s not like a person that you can say, “It’s going to be about this,” or an event where you’re like, “OK, we’ll circle around that.” What I felt was that, as a person who tells stories in the fictional space, it was a coming of age story in a similar way to movies like Harry Potter and Star Wars. Here’s this doe-eyed farm boy who doesn’t really know what’s going on, and is then faced with the first difficulty of the Empire.

I felt with Black Twitter there was the beginning phase of, ‘What is this place?’ in terms of how we gather. It’s a place of fun, and we’re starting to find ourselves, starting to find a collective around Ashley [Weatherspoon’s] tweet of #YouKnowYoureBlackWhen. We end [part one] with Trayvon [Martin’s death] as the first awakening – that there’s something more impactful out there that we need to do. That led to what the second episode should be, which is how we can use our collective power in different ways. Not just for jokes and fun, but to galvanize and push back against things, in a way that I felt we hadn’t really seen since the way my mother talked about the Civil Rights Movement. It allowed us to not move so linearly, but thematically.

How did you determine which voices you wanted to bring in, particularly in terms of giving credit where it’s due for a community that doesn’t always get it? 

For the people we selected, I really wanted a wide array. I didn’t want it to feel like these were just journalists or professors talking conceptually around Black Twitter. We can have those people that can give that context, but Black Twitter is made up of everyone. It is made up of comics like Sam Jay and Amanda Seales, political people like Brad Jenkins who worked with Obama, and of course journalists like the Wesley Lowery’s of the world – and everything in between. So many of the things that happened on Black Twitter were just through regular folks. It wasn’t through the pundits and the professors. I think of CaShawn who started #BlackGirlMagic and I think of Johnetta Elzie who was there on the ground in Ferguson telling us the stories. For me, it was important to have the “professor types” along with regular people because Black Twitter is a level playing field, which is rare for Black people in this country. To me, Black Twitter is the hang out in the quad in college or the stoop in your neighborhood. Famous or not, everybody can get these jokes. It’s the cookout where we’re all cousins.

You cover the mainstream press’ monetization of Black Twitter, and the link between Black Twitter’s social justice activism and citizen journalism, which feels particularly reminiscent of the Black press and the innovative techniques created by those like Ida B. Wells in the absence of accurate reporting from the white press. What were you hoping to highlight while connecting the way Black Americans have had to compensate for the larger society’s lack of inclusion and value of Black people?

You’re hitting so many things that we were talking about as we were crafting this. We talked about the ways that the this citizen journalism felt like the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s where they would call out the white press on these things or publish [stories like], “These are the lynchings that happened today.” Because nobody else is talking about them, we’re going to talk about them. That was the parallel to me that we were drawing. In the doc, we talk about technology and the ease in which technology progresses, even if it’s not created for that purpose. It allows other groups to use it in a different way. I think Black people are always doing that. We’ll take the worst of the food and make it our soul food. We’ll take this and we’ll turn it into this. We are never given the best of anything in this country, so we always have to find ways to remix and repurpose. How do we use this to our advantage? That’s an inherent thing to how we were brought into this country.

The technology, the printing press – even though we were taught we weren’t supposed to read, we learned how to read and to use that as a tool to fight and push back. Twitter wasn’t made for us – none of this stuff is made for us – but we found a way. We decided that this technology could be used for us. In the ‘90s, when the Rodney King [beating] happened, the video camera was capturing all the things we have been saying that people told us didn’t exist. Even then people can deny, but that technology allowed us to say, “Hey, this thing that happened? It was real.” The benefit of the phone and the platform – again, not created for us – is that they allowed us to document without having to spend a bunch of money because even then video cameras cost a lot and there’s certainly no [easy] way to upload that to the world. But now on our phone,  we can become a literal printing press within seconds. You don’t need to have a budget. You don’t need to have anything except a conscience and all of a sudden, things can change.

That’s what I really love about what Black Twitter represents. Black Twitter allows Black people all across the world to galvanize in a way that you can’t afford to do in so many other ways, but you can do on this platform because money isn’t a deterrent to access.

So did you want to frame Black Twitter as a chapter in a macro history of Black people in America, or a micro, unique moment with this doc?

I do actually view it larger than that. The point I get to by the end is that Black Twitter has left the Matrix. It’s kind of like when Neo learns to fly, he realizes no rules apply anymore. I was talking with a friend the other day, and somebody was saying something in my friend group, and one said, “Oh, don’t say that. Black Twitter gonna cancel you.” And we were just texting on the phone, so there’s no Black Twitter! Nobody was posting this. Black Twitter is now almost like the way you say Googling something, or Kleenex is no longer just a brand. I think Black Twitter now is bigger than whether or not Twitter exists – a conscious voice that represents revolution. It represents pushback and represents accountability. The Black Twitter energy is out and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.

During the section discussing Black Twitter’s relationship to Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s verdict, W. Kamau Bell says something powerful while talking about the impact of Black Twitter and it’s ability to hold people to account even if the legal system doesn’t: “Justice doesn’t always work the way you want it to, but sometimes it’s working in ways you can’t imagine.” How do you think that encapsulates the conversation about Black Twitter and power or the nature of its impact?

I had never thought about it from that perspective. I remember when he said it, I kind of paused. It took me a second to ask the next question because I had to sit with that. As a lot of people know, in this country, justice can be very swift and can be brought down very quickly with us. It’, you did this, you’re going to get the penalty. Oftentimes with other groups of people you don’t feel it the same way. You see this man getting escorted to Burger King after he did this horrible thing. So when [Bell] said that I was like, “God, he’s right.” Obviously, there’s no comparison to losing your child, but I was like, that man is in an eternal jail until he dies and I definitely want the justice of that. The thing I took from the doc is that there’s a galvanization: we not to be played with no more. I think Van Latham says this, but we don’t get a lot of ways in this country to control a narrative or dictate much. But culture is something we do get to dictate a lot of, and now you look to us to do that, reluctantly or not.

That’s what happens on Black Twitter – it becomes a playground that we control in America. It’s not like passing down wealth, but it’s power in a way that we can participate in just by proxy of being part of the family, part of the culture. My grandmother, before she passed away, stressed on passing down her house to my mom. She wasn’t able to and I remember it killed her. That’s obviously one way people pass down generational wealth, and Black people don’t have a lot of ways to do that. Black Twitter is a way that happens. You can find ways to monetize it for you or not. You can find ways to participate heavily in it or not. But with us all in on it, we can push for a common agenda by simply being involved in a way that just didn’t exist 15 years ago. It’s not always a safe space, obviously, but I feel like when we’re talking about things that are about race and culture, it certainly gets to be a space where you feel like, if I bring this up at my job, I’m going to be looked at funny, but here’s where I can shout out that feeling and not feel alone. That’s such a very important thing that Black Twitter offers.

You point to a number of societal leaders in this and their impact on the platform and Black Twitter, including men like Donald Trump or Elon Musk. Did you want to point to particular people, like Trump and everything that came with him, as being responsible for the kind of conservative backlash you explore Black Twitter facing? 

I think it’s definitely one thing, but there was never any conscious choice to be making it be about him. I think the point is that he’s America’s response to Barack Obama more than anything. These issues were there, he’s just one of the reasons this happened. So many things were under a rock for a long time. That was just all a result of the country’s reaction to other things that were happening, about holding itself accountable. I think we see that in a myriad of ways like politicians wanting to burn books or control women’s rights. I think all of that is pervasive through so many other ways beyond just Black Twitter, so we weren’t ever trying to make it be about that.

You touch on the comedic memes and hashtags, but also the entertainment like Scandal and the tweeting behind that. You also point to Black Twitter’s backing of Shonda Rhimes, Issa Rae, Quinta Brunson, Empire, Black Panther, Get Out as a symbol of its power in Hollywood. As a Black creative with a direct tie to Black Twitter, does you think presence sparks or at least helps the kind of wave of Black-led entertainment we saw? 

I don’t think anything is ever one specific thing. Usually it’s a nexus of a few things coming together at the right moment in time, and timing is everything. In talking about the cancellation of shows with Black people in them, there’s not a lot of ways people can see themselves on TV or in movies. And there’s an absence of seeing yourself in entertainment on top of we have this Black president and we’re not really seeing ourselves in other spaces, certainly, [on that level]. So I think as Black people do, we filled the gaps, and a lot of those gaps were being filled by the Quinta Brunson’s and Issa Rae’s – people who were doing web stuff early on. So you have the absence of seeing ourselves mixed with nobody’s going to hire me, which means I’m going to fill the gap this way. Then it was the Shonda Rhimes’ of the world who had success with things like Grey’s Anatomy and what’s she’s able to do next is Scandal. It was also notable that it was a Black woman as the lead because we hadn’t seen that since Diane Carroll. I think we were all kind of coming together in a perfect storm. Technology then allowed us to show that.

Obviously, Hollywood is like, “The ratings aren’t up,” or “We’re not making as much money as this.” But I think what we were also finding that ratings numbers are not the whole story. Social engagement became a way that studios wanted to see how a show could be successful. It doesn’t always have to be, “Does it have a 22 share in the ratings? If not, that is not a hit.” I think it became, is it a numbers hit or is it a creative cultural hit? And if Black Twitter didn’t exist and wasn’t talking about that for something like Scandal, I think it wouldn’t have been seen necessarily as a cultural and creative hit because [Hollywood] would not be able to see all these voices talking about it. And because Scandal was the first one up in that way, we could all push around it in the same way we did when Black Panther came out. It was, “We all gotta go see it,” right? So I think all of those things kind of met at the right moment.

There’s been some retraction or snapback to diverse narratives in Hollywood and Issa Rae briefly spoke to Time about what she believes is fueling that. As someone with a long history in this industry and in light of this doc, what have you seen and experienced in Hollywood in terms of support or opportunities and that snapback? Do you feel like things have or are changing for creators? 

Cuts are happening across all industries. I’ve had friends who have worked for Fortune 500 companies telling me that their diversity and inclusion budgets are shut down or they’re just moving away from it now. That’s not necessarily just a Hollywood thing. I think it’s across a lot of industries, and I think more than Black people need to feel concerned about this. I think we should all be concerned about this as people. What are we saying when we say these things matter and then after some time, we pull them away? But Hollywood is just one big industry in America, and I don’t look at it as they do better or worse than any other industry. I’ve been seeing it happen, where the energy of that is just going away because some people feel we’re past this or better or we’re over it. But obviously in America things are so cyclical, like Affirmation Action. That’s why I always like to say I’m cautiously optimistic because I’ve worked long enough now to see America always repeat itself. As a country, we refuse or certain parts of the population don’t want to learn or grow from certain things. And so you do end up facing the same things.

You moved your overall deal from HBO to Onyx. Why did you want to hop to Disney? 

I liked what they were building over there. To have a studio sort of run by executives of color to me was a really important thing to feel like you don’t have to take extra steps. Not that I felt this at HBO in any way, but I think it does feel like when you want to make something or do something, you don’t have to explain the why. [They] understand the why. Now you just get to ask creatively does it work or not work, without having to justify everything about the process. And obviously, Disney still has such a huge reach through all of their other companies and all their other avenues. So it felt great to be able to tap into and do some things that feel culturally different but still have the machine [Disney] can offer as well.

An abbreviated version of this story first appeared in the March 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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