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Emmys 2024: Alumnus Jerry Henry shares his experience working on ‘The 1619 Project’ docuseries

Executive producer Roger Ross Williams, director of photography Jerry Henry and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones (left to right) sit on stairs. Alumnus Henry said collaboration was an important part of the documentary’s filming process. (Courtesy of Jerry Henry)

By Victoria Munck

Jan. 11, 2024 9:22 p.m.

With prime lenses and 16-millimeter film, Jerry Henry is reframing American history.

The alumnus and cinematographer recently earned an Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program category for his work as director of photography on the Hulu docuseries “The 1619 Project.” Adapted from journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning publication of the same name, the six episode-program explores how the legacy of slavery remains central to the United States’ narrative today. When establishing the project’s visual language, Henry sought to translate the source material in a way that all viewers could resonate with, he said.

“This is a story that is about Black history and culture,” Henry said. “This isn’t just our story. This is America’s story. So you want to be able to make it accessible to everyone. That’s what a good documentary does – it draws the audience in.”

[Related: Melody C. Miller illuminates revolutionary poet ruth weiss with documentary]

Prior to his recruitment for the series, Henry said he was already a fan of Hannah-Jones’ project upon discovering it through a New York Times podcast. His admiration for the literature made him even more excited to accept showrunner Shoshana Guy’s invitation to join the documentary’s crew, he said. The two had previously worked together on the docuseries “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” Guy said, where they established a fruitful working relationship.

Guy said Henry was her first choice for the job, as she trusted that he could achieve her mission of adapting the essay’s dense concepts in an approachable way. While this was initially a challenge for Henry, he said he realized he could best convey a sense of familiarity on screen when Hannah-Jones was comfortable enough on camera. Because the journalist had never worked in television before, Henry strove to ease her nerves by protecting her from the harsh conditions of outdoor shoots and surrounding her with familiar faces on set, he added.

“We had a turning point when we went to Waterloo – which is where she’s from – and we actually got to interview her family members,” Henry said. “We were there for about a week, and during that time, we formed a really strong bond. … It was beautiful.”

( Courtesy of Joshua Makela)
Jerry Henry (left) films journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones (right), who stars in "The 1619 Project" and penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning essay of the same name. The Hulu docuseries centers the consequences of slavery on American life. (Courtesy of Joshua Makela)

Considering other ways to connect viewers to the series, Henry said he attempted to evoke nostalgia through multiple filming techniques. The absence of archival footage from the story’s origin in 1619 inspired him to create his own rendition with a VHS camera and antiquated film, he said. When executed properly, the home movie essence ties the extensive history together while still feeling contemporary, Henry added.

Producer Bety Dereje said Henry’s ability to convey emotion through multiple visual modes ensured that “The 1619 Project” could capture every necessary detail. For instance, Henry said he filmed many interstitial pieces, such as shots of women dancing in a marsh, to serve as spiritual pauses between the narrative and briefly transport audiences to an ethereal place. Dereje also applauded Henry’s use of portraiture, which aligned with the documentary’s key goals by bringing both texture and soul to screen, she said.

“Portraiture … ended up being integral to the mission of the work, which is seeing Black people and seeing what they have made in the context of a country that refuses to see,” Dereje said. “He (Henry) was such a big part of that seeing. The portraiture ended up being so majestic and so tender at the same time. It was universal and intimate.”

(Courtesy of Jerry Henry)
Alumnus Jerry Henry sits with a camera, surrounded by three women in white garments. Henry said he shot several interstitial scenes for "The 1619 Project," including one of women dancing in a marsh. (Courtesy of Jerry Henry)

[Related: Kai Bowe, Adriane Hopper Williams talk diversity in entertainment with UCLA Alumni]

“The 1619 Project” required over 150 days of shooting, Henry said, whisking the documentary’s crew across the country for the span of a year. One of the many filming locations he cherished was Virginia, as he said he associated the coastal seas with a standout quote from Hannah-Jones’ writing: “They say our people were born on the water.” Henry even captured Georgia residents facing voter suppression during an election, which he said was one of the most memorable and startling events he experienced while shooting.

“That was the most eye-opening for me,” Henry said. “You wrap up production, and you’re trying to figure out equipment – and you realize that the world is still happening. … This is just one little story that we’re following, but you realize that it could be happening everywhere.”

The final episode of the docuseries, entitled “Justice,” found Henry in the community of Harris Neck – and secured him his Emmy nomination. He said he considers the episode’s visuals to be some of his strongest within the production, as they best encompass the overarching vision of the series. His work employed the filmmaking style of cinéma vérité, a method that involves capturing the story in the authentic moment, he said.

Furthermore, Guy said the finale is an especially valued episode among the project’s team because it buttons the series while candidly calling for justice for Black people. Following the Harris Neck community’s fight for the restitution of their land, the episode presents a paramount theme, Henry said. Witnessing the residents’ ancestral connection to the land was a beautiful and necessary moment to document, Guy added.

“This particular work is so rooted in justice for Black people, and we’re really creating a record of truth,” Guy said. “Particularly during this time, when there’s an attempt to erase Black history and bury it and bring us back to the days of old, it’s really important to have this on the record.”

Reflecting on his decades of experience in the industry, Henry said he was honored to have his work recognized by the Television Academy for the first time, especially as the only director of photography on the project. While filming was filled with challenges and spontaneity, he said the documentary’s strong producers and directors gave him the confidence to succeed. Specifically, he appreciated that Guy included him in all aspects of the creative process, which he said allowed him to express himself in a way he had not yet fulfilled in his career.

“Shoshana trusted me wholeheartedly,” Henry said. “That, to me, is where I love being in my career. I was given the opportunity to figure out how to tell my own voice in the visual medium of cinematography. It’s been a blessing.”

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Victoria Munck | Theater | film | television editor
Munck is the 2023-2024 theater | film | television editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2022-2023. She is a second-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
Munck is the 2023-2024 theater | film | television editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2022-2023. She is a second-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
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