Hulu's Black Twitter documentary is a vital cultural chronicle

The doc explores the rise and impact of one of social media's most influential subcultures.


They say "Twitter isn't real life," but Black Twitter proved otherwise. For years, that phrase has been a way to ignore the real-world impact of social media conversations, especially when they spark radically new ideas. But that's clearly not true when you look at Black Twitter, an unofficial community made up of the site's black users, which inspired culturally significant movements with hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite. Hulu's new documentary, "Black Lives Matter: A People's History," adapted from Jason Parham's Wired article, explores the rise and global influence of the community. Over the course of three engaging and often hilarious episodes, the series cements itself as an essential cultural document.

"The way I would define Black Twitter is a space where Black culture specifically was hanging out in a digital way," said Prentice Penny, the series director and former show-runner of HBO's Insecure, in an interview on the Engadget Podcast. "And even though it was a public space — clearly, it's Twitter, anybody can get on it — it still felt like you were having conversations with your friends that are like on the back of the bus. Or like on the stoop, or in the lunchroom. I mean, that's the energy of it."

In particular, Penny says that Twitter felt special because there was no real hierarchy, especially in the early days. That meant that even celebrities weren't immune to being mocked, or acting out on their own social media profiles (like Rihanna's notorious early Twitter presence). Twitter in its heyday felt like a place where money or class didn't really matter.

"This was kind of an equalization of a lot of things, that somebody in Kentucky who nobody knows could have the same strong opinion as someone who you revere, right?" Penny said. "And I think that's what made the space so fresh, because we don't really have spaces that are kind of a level playing ground in this country."

Twitter also felt genuinely different from the other social networks in the late 2000s. At the time, Facebook was mostly focused on connecting you with schoolmates and family members — it wasn't really a place for simply hanging out and joking around. Prentice notes that the forced brevity on Twitter also made it unique, since you had to really focus on what you were trying to say in 140 characters.

"Each of the creators [in the series] had a different idea of what Twitter should be," Penny added. "Some thought it should be a town square, some people thought it should be a news information thing... I think like with Black culture, the one thing we do really well is, because we're often given the scraps of things, we have to repurpose something, like taking the worst of the pig and making soul food... I think we are really good at taking things that could kind of be different things and make it be pliable for us."

The documentary recounts the many ways Black Twitter leveraged the platform, both for fun and for kicking off serious social movements. The community helped make live-tweeting TV shows a common occurrence, and it's one reason Scandal became a hit TV show. But Black users also helped raise the profile around Trayvon Martin's killing by George Zimmerman. His eventual acquittal led to the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, a movement which sparked national protests in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans.

If you've been online and following the Black Twitter community for years, the Hulu documentary may not seem particularly revelatory. But there's value in charting the impact of cultural movements, especially given how quickly social media and the tech world moves.