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'Black Twitter' documentary explores its history and cultural impact


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Finally tonight: A new documentary captures the power, promise and challenges of what's long been known as Black Twitter.

Amna Nawaz has that for our arts and culture series, Canvas, and our coverage of Race Matters.

Amna Nawaz: Before it was X, it was Twitter, a hub for breaking news, commentary and hot takes. And in its early days, one subculture, Black Twitter, became a driving force in defining pop culture, creating trending hashtags, unforgettable memes, and even sparking social justice movements.

A new docuseries on Hulu looks at the history, the impact and the legacy of Black Twitter.

Woman: You know you're Black when you cancel plans when it's raining.

Man: You know you're Black when you wear tall tees.

Man: You're Black when you go to a cookout...

Amna Nawaz: The director and executive producer of "Black Twitter: A People's History" is Prentice Penny. And he joins me now.

Prentice, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for joining us.

Prentice Penny, Director, "Black Twitter: A People's History": Thank you. Happy to be here.

Amna Nawaz: So this is based on a Wired article from 2021 that Jason Parham wrote. He's in the documentary, and he's also one of your co-producers on this. So this had been written about.

Why did you think that this story needed to be documented in this way?

Prentice Penny: Well, obviously, I have like a -- my own love with Black Twitter. I was obviously being a part of it as well.

But I think as we were sort of seeing things change in terms of certain books being pulled out of schools, certain narratives about Black history in this country sort of being changed or being augmented, it felt like Black Twitter was a place to hold things accountable.

And if those things are being removed from libraries, it felt, like, well, what else here is documenting our impact on the culture? And this felt like the right thing to do.

Amna Nawaz: You do poke fun in the series about the idea of Black Twitter itself, how people on the outside looking in would ask, like, where is it? How can I find it? Is it a hashtag?

How do you begin to explain Black Twitter to anyone unfamiliar?

Prentice Penny: I think Black Twitter is any space, at least on the platform it was at the time, where Black culture got to be authentically itself and drive conversations.

Sometimes, typically, Black culture in this country has to code-switch or be sensitive or not tell its full truth. And I feel like Black Twitter is a space where we got to be fully who we were and, again, drive conversations in America, especially ones that are uncomfortable.

Amna Nawaz: Why do you think it became so potent, such a cultural force?

Prentice Penny: I think it became a cultural force because I think a lot of times, historically in America, Black life and the things that have mattered to Black culture have sort of been over there, and you can isolate yourself from it. Like, you don't have to read "Essence" magazine or "Ebony" magazine or you don't have to watch Black shows or listen to certain music or whatever.

You can kind of curate your own kind of bubble America. But, on Twitter, you couldn't, right, because you could open the platform and see things that were mattering to Black culture and Black America up there with things that were on CNN or MSNBC. So you couldn't separate yourself from what you were seeing in terms of Black culture, or you had to get off the app, which was very different than Facebook, which was very much curating a community you already knew.

Twitter was almost trying to connect strangers in a way. And, as a result of that, you have to be around people you don't know and be around things that you don't typically have maybe involved your life in. And I think that's why it became a force, because it was putting the issues that mattered to Black America and Black culture up there in the same way with mainstream.

Amna Nawaz: You cover this so beautifully in the series. There are moments of real community, right, like group-watching the show "Scandal." There's moments of real joy and total comedy.

I have to say the "Meet me in Temecula" bit had me laughing out loud. It's a story of basically a Twitter brawl that spills into real life. Here's a bit of how you covered it in the series.

Man: This Man allegedly drove damn near an hour to Temecula.

Woman: Temecula Valley, Southern California Wine Country.

Man: He tweeted himself. He went. He went to Temecula to have a fight over Kobe Bryant.

Man: We have all been in barbershops. We have all been in cookouts. And there's always the brother, the uncle, whoever, who takes the hoop argument a little too far. You don't play for the Lakers, bro.

Amna Nawaz: Prentice, I'm laughing now because I remember watching this as it played out in real time. Why was this a defining moment that you felt had to be included in the series?

Prentice Penny: I mean, I think it's one of the moments in Black Twitter, that we remember that. And I think that's some of the beauty of Black Twitter is these sort of real powerful moments like Trayvon Martin, and Black Lives Matter and Black girl magic and coexist alongside of random craziness as this.

And I think that's sort of the way Black life is in real life. And I think that's the way Black Twitter sort of can have things that feel fun and serious just coexist together.

Amna Nawaz: You mentioned some of those serious moments. And I have to ask you about it, because Black Twitter is responsible for some of the most potent hashtags that actually led to real-world change in modern history, Oscars So White and MeToo and Black Lives Matter.

You cover in the series how activists like Johnetta Elzie used Twitter to get the word out after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Take a look.

Johnetta Elzie, Activist: All I had was my Twitter and my Facebook. And so I just -- I felt and I really believe that someone somewhere would care about what I was saying.

Woman: Johnetta Elzie was in the streets of Ferguson. Her threads and tweets in that moment are history.

Amna Nawaz: Prentice, without Twitter and without Black journalists and activists using it the way that they did, do you think the world would know the names of Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd the way that we all do?

Prentice Penny: No, I don't think we would.

And I think there's something about Black Twitter that hearkens back to the way that my mother and my father talked about the civil rights movement. I think about phrases like "We shall overcome" and "I had a dream, I have a dream" and "I am a Man," go -- like coexisting alongside with things like Black Lives Matter and Black girls magic and "Say her name" and things like that.

And so, again, it was -- it's such a force in terms of changing America. And I feel like I'm so excited and so proud of what happened and really excited for the generations to come, because, again, my children aren't on the platform because they're just too young, but they're 14 and 16, but they are moving through the world, already hearing phrases like that, expressions like that in their lexicon and they move that way.

So I'm just really proud and excited that everything that Black Twitter has done and continues to do in the real world too.

Amna Nawaz: Well, as we mentioned, it's not Twitter anymore, right? It is X.

What does Elon Musk moving in, buying the platform and changing the rules, what does that mean for this conversation and for Black Twitter?

Prentice Penny: I think it's super dangerous, right? I think any time someone can come in and buy a platform that some people in society have used as a microphone or as a way to get the message out and he doesn't need to make money on it and can disassemble the platform is problematic, right?

And I think you have seen ways in which he's fired a lot of people. A lot of hate has -- a lot of hate speech has jumped up like 4000 percent. Yes, I think it just proved how good of a microphone and amplification it was for voices that have been marginalized.

So it's super dangerous.

Amna Nawaz: Well, all three parts of "Black Twitter: A People's History" are available to stream right now on Hulu.

Executive producer and director Prentice Penny, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a real pleasure.

Prentice Penny: Thank you for having me.

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