On paper, the movies appear somewhat removed from both the racial reckoning taking place around the world and the large-scale bureaucratic failures that greeted the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, both films grapple with themes that have given them an added resonance with critics, audiences and Academy voters.
By telling the story of Fred Hampton, who was gunned down by the FBI and police in 1969, “Judas and the Black Messiah” explores the racist history of the justice system and reclaims a civil rights icon whose work has often been misconstrued and misunderstood.
“The true stories of so many Black Americans are so often intentionally left out of our culture, a symptom of a larger issue of systemic racism,” says David Linde, CEO of Participant. “Addressing this inequity requires reckoning with the erasure of the true legacy of activists like Chairman Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party … by investing ourselves into their stories and longer-term narrative change.”
“Collective,” a documentary about Romania’s corrupt and dysfunctional public health operations, assumes a Cassandra-like quality in the wake of a pandemic that has exposed deficiencies in how governments respond to global plagues. At the same time, by following a handful of crusading reporters as they work to put a spotlight on corruption, the doc sounds a clarion call for the value of journalism.
“Audiences, through an amazing film, deserve to know they can trust the press and that institutions have an obligation to protect their interests,” says Linde.
The two releases also fit squarely within Participant’s mission. Founded by former eBay president Jeffrey Skoll in 2004 with a goal of backing film and television content that inspires social change, Participant has provided funding for Oscar winners such as “Spotlight,” “Lincoln” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” Like those films, “Collective” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” arrived in theaters accompanied by campaigns designed to spur audiences to get involved with civil rights and social justice issues.
“Participant cares deeply about telling stories that are as relevant to the moment as possible,” says Linde. “We believe that audiences want to be inspired and to get involved in the world around them.”
Telling these stories and sharing them with the world has meant embracing partnerships with a range of distributors and distribution strategies. “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which was co-produced by Macro and Proximity, was released by Warner Bros. and simultaneously debuted on HBO Max. “Collective” was distributed by indie studio Magnolia and has had a strong second life streaming on Hulu. In the coming months, Participant will partner with the likes of Netflix, Peacock, Amazon, Nat Geo and Neon as it ramps back up to achieving its pre-pandemic goal of making five to six narrative features annually and the same number of documentaries a year.
“It’s the obligation of a producer to live the life of a film from its gestation to its conclusion,” says Linde. “You need to pick the right distributor and to make sure that company connects to the material and is passionate about engaging the audience in both the material and the social impact work that we do.”