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‘Black Twitter’ Documentary Sharply Charts Rise of Internet Phenomenon

If you think about it, there’s no better place to premiere “Black Twitter: A People’s History” than at South by Southwest.

The three-part Hulu and Onyx docuseries based on Jason Parham’s similarly titled “Wired” story exists at the perfect intersection of entertainment, internet, and culture — just like SXSW itself.

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“When I read the article, it was not only was only something that I love, that I participated in, but I saw the power of it,” director Prentice Penny told IndieWire during the conference. “It was sort of feeling like the way my mother talks about the Civil Rights Movement. That’s what I felt like was happening on Black Twitter.”

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Along with being an active platform-formerly-known-as-Twitter user, Penny (whose profile welcomes users with the subhed “FUX YO BLUE CHECK”) was itching to do something different after “Insecure” — something that scared him.

“When Sarah Amos and the team at Conde Nast brought me this article, I was super scared to approach a documentary cause I’d never done it before,” Penny said. “But then I remembered that’s the feeling I like. Filmmakers I like, like Spike Lee, who can go and do ‘Malcolm X’ and all these amazing movies but then also do ‘When the Levees Break’ and ‘Four Little Girls’ — I knew that I needed to expand that energy and my career in that way.”

Parham’s article published in 2021; the three-part oral history ends with January 6’s insurrection. By the end of the year, Penny was on board as director, and so was showrunner Joie Jacoby, who came from a documentary background.

“This is definitely something that I super geeked out about,” she said, about reading Parham’s article. “This is basically an opportunity to tell a history — the last 20 years of our history and black folks in a digital space, but really us. Another way of telling who we are.”

“Black Twitter: A People’s History” includes interviews with an impressive and lengthy roster of writers, scholars, activists, and entertainers, the full list of which was released March 7 and includes W. Kamau Bell, Rembert Browne, Roxane Gay, Jemele Hill, Dr. Meredith Clark, Ira Madison III, Raquel Willis, April Reign, and many more. Many of them spoke with Parham for his original story, but enhancing the scope of Black Twitter’s history meant adding in more voices. Parham and Penny had extensive conversations about how to bring the words to life and what framework to use for the series.

Director Prentice Penny, wearing a scarf and hat and with a screen projecting Tweets in the background.
‘Black Twitter’ director Prentice PennyDisney/Clarence Williams

“Typically when you’re doing a doc, the subject matter of what you’re talking about is past — it’s over, it’s done,” Penny said. “Jason was so prophetic in documenting the story at this moment in time. We sit in the dark, in the digital space or internet, and so many things are here today, gone tomorrow that you’ve got to catch these moments.”

Sometimes that meant having a finished cut and having to add to it, whether that was a new hashtag or viral moment or something as pivotal as Elon Musk buying Twitter. It also means that the internet will have kept moving by the time “Black Twitter: A People’s History” streams on Hulu, but Penny says the overarching narrative never changed.

“That’s also the beauty of the ecosystem of the platform and Black Twitter,” Parham added. “You can’t quite define it totally because it’s always moving and reshaping and adapting and remixing — which is so intrinsic to Black culture.”

Parham, who still works for “Wired,” is in his fourth year attending SXSW — first as a journalist and editor, and now debuting a series that he not only produced but sparked entirely into existence.

“[It’s] really meaningful to me,” he said. “Especially at South by Southwest, which is this intersection of all these different industries and cultures and identities, and I think that’s exactly what the documentary is about and speaks to. It’s a perfect marrying of the two for me and I’m ecstatic, honestly.”

“It really is,” Jacoby added. “It has enhanced filmmaking chops and integrity, but the tech part of our story is so relevant that I just feel like audiences here are gonna get it in a way that they wouldn’t elsewhere.”

“Black Twitter: A People’s History” premieres Friday, March 8 at SXSW and Thursday, May 9 on Hulu.

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