Veda Tunstall remembers the first time film people started poking around her hometown asking questions, and it wasn’t for the documentary that became “Descendant.”
Tunstall, a subject in Margaret Brown’s movie about the search for a long-lost slave ship near a community called Africatown, says that years before Brown showed up, other filmmakers wanted to make their own movies about hunting for the Clotilda. That didn’t go well. The community’s needs were never in mind and the story being told wasn’t their own; it was the ship’s.
The investment of time and attention that Brown and production company Participant put into “Descendant” felt different. The film also follows actual descendants who live in Africatown and examines how their ancestors’ actions can be traced across generations. The search for the slave ship was only half the story.
“We were just trying to figure out how to find other descendants, not necessarily thinking about trying to tell the story, but just trying to find our family,” Tunstall told IndieWire. “I still can’t even tell you when I actually realized that I was a part of a film. It was so organic.”
Unifying the community and telling the history of the Clotilda has long been the mission of Tunstall, her fellow descendants, and producer Participant. The producer-financier saw an opportunity to capture the bigger picture about systemic racism and the erasure of African-American history with a prestige documentary and its complementary impact campaign.
“We always felt that it was a film that would grab you because of the enormity of the story, but also how much of an analogy it is for the rest of for this country,” David Linde, Participant’s CEO, told IndieWire. “We believe everything that we make should be not just part of a conversation, but should elevate that conversation.”
As it turns out, discussions among Participant involving Africatown began years before the documentary materialized. “Descendant” failed to land an 2023 Oscar nomination, but its work in Africatown continues as part of an impact campaign long after cameras left.
Participant hosted screenings with a special video from the Obamas and had a meeting at Vice President Kamala Harris’ office. It sponsored the #DescendantChallenge encouraging others to share their own family’s oral histories and launched “The Descendant Cookout” web series, which highlights locals who preserve hometown recipes and other marks of their heritage. The company even rallied some of its past connections at the EPA (formed on the 2019 film “Dark Waters”) to help Africatown residents address major environmental concerns.
It’s a lot of time and money for a movie that will never have the reach of a blockbuster, but the investment Participant makes with films like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Dark Waters,” and “Spotlight” creates sustained value. The ongoing advocacy of “Dark Waters” in particular paid off last year when the Biden administration finally restricted chemicals known as PFAs that star Mark Ruffalo had been calling attention to since the film’s release in 2019.
According to Linde, a great impact movie happens only if you build a level of trust with those involved. Continue to build that trust and the activists who live the work before, during, and after the production will help bolster the work long after it’s gone into the library.
“You’re only going to be able to do the work that we do unless you’ve built that trust already,” he said. “You can’t just snap your finger and say, ‘Hey, trust Participant. Here we are. We’re going to tell your story, or we’re going to do an impact campaign, or we want to support you.’ It just doesn’t work. We don’t just disappear. They still have our number, and we’re still going to provide guidance and perspective. And we do move on after a while, but the hope is we’ve helped them build capacity in a way that they have even more capabilities than they did before we showed up on their front door.”
Participant’s director of communications Rosalina Jowers said the company has similar relationships with nonprofit organizations that never had a relationship with Hollywood. “As a first step for many of these organizations, they didn’t have a website, they didn’t have the capacity really to fundraise online, and we knew that was critically important. We also knew that was important for them to be media trained and have the ability to share their stories with reporters.”
None of this comes cheaply and Linde is the first to acknowledge that Participant is a for-profit company. Not only do these movies have to be profitable, but as Linde pointed out, “if nobody sees your movie, then there is no impact campaign.” Linde said Participant’s box office since its launch in 2004 represents $3 billion across 130 films, half of which are documentaries.
The 2019 Warner Bros. release “Just Mercy” starring Michael B. Jordan, which had an impact campaign in collaboration with the film subject’s Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, grossed $50 million worldwide against a $25 million budget. That same year Focus Features released “Dark Waters” with Mark Ruffalo; it made only $23 million worldwide.
On the streaming end, Linde said he was very encouraged by the viewership of the Participant-produced “Roma” and the company extended the film’s impact campaign for domestic workers well into the pandemic. The 2022 “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” spent two weeks on Netflix’s Top 10 — the same week “Stranger Things 4” debuted — and subscribers watched 31.1 million hours of the docuseries in its first week.
“The more people that connect to the film or series, the more potential for impact and relatedly, the more valuable for our distribution partners,” Linde said.
Not every Participant film gets an impact campaign, but Linde said streamers and distributors are getting wise to the idea that they increase engagement.
“The power of shared experience is more valuable than facts,” he said. “We do pursue an economic value in making the content that we make. We’re not making it to give it away by any stretch of the imagination. But more importantly, we’re making it so audiences will embrace it. What these distributors now recognize is that we’re actually expanding the commercial breadth of the film.”
Companies like Picture Motion or Think Film in Europe also invest in projects with an impact edge, to varying degrees of success. Neon, which worked with Participant on 2022’s “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” recently hired an executive who works on impact. The Emerson Collective also invested in Macro, Concordia, and Anonymous Content with the belief that stories are better at inspiring change than other activism work alone.
Participant will follow a model similar to “Descendant” for its upcoming Netflix Shirley Chisholm biopic starring Regina King. The roots of that project go back to voting rights connections created while working on documentary “RBG.”
“You’ll remember me saying in the film, ‘I don’t want us to be a part of it. I want us to be it,'” Tunstall said. This is the kind of thing where we’re being it. We are going to decide which way this community goes.”
Visit DescendantFilm.com for more. “Descendant” is available now on Netflix.