Hollywood has taken a lot of heat, lately from none other than Martin Scorsese, for its obsession with superheroes, sequels, and special effects. All this has raised a nagging question about the soul of the film industry: Does it care about real people and their struggles?
Just in time for Oscar season comes an answer: Tinsel Town might have a conscience after all. Hollywood is producing a new wave of movies, many of them based on true stories, that tackle some of the most difficult and important issues of the day, from threats to the environment to racial justice. The best of them pose a triple threat: they’re artfully entertaining, they have a real impact on society, and they can make money. The latter, especially, is the kind of sustainability that Hollywood can celebrate.
Dark Waters, which opens tomorrow, is emblematic of the trend. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins, the movie tells the chilling story of a lawyer who crosses over from representing corporations to challenging one of the biggest of them all on behalf of a community stricken by long-term chemical pollution. Its heroes have no capes or special powers.
The movie has garnered strongly positive reviews, not just for its own entertainment value, but the kind of storytelling it represents. “Dark Waters, in its stunningly real and intricately crafted way, restores some of the original shock and awe to the journalistic genre of The Conspiracies Around Us That Are Truly Happening,” wrote Owen Gleiberman, Variety’s chief film critic. “[Director] Todd Haynes has made the first corporate thriller that’s a call to action because you’ll emerge from it feeling anything but safe.”
Dark Waters is the product of a relative newcomer to Hollywood’s elite, Participant Media, which was launched in 2004 by Silicon Valley tycoon Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay. Participant soon made waves with the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth and has steadily built itself into an Academy Award magnet, garnering 73 nominations and 18 Oscar statues. Among its recent films: Roma, Greenbook, and Spotlight. Propelled by their Best Picture awards, Greenbook and Spotlight respectively pulled in nearly $322 million and $100 million in box-office revenues.
Contributing to the movement are indie studios like A24–which produced the human-size dramas Moonlight, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and The Farewell–as well as streaming powerhouses like Amazon Studios, which is distributing The Report, starring Adam Driver as the U.S. Senate staffer who wrote the 2014 report on the CIA’s interrogation methods after 9/11. Citing films like The Report, Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post wrote that they “might be called accountability filmmaking: fact-based movies that treat audiences not just as spectators but as citizens, hoping to engage them enough to take action or at least question the systems that condition their lives.”
“Human stories, compellingly told, have an amazing value,” Participant Media’s Holly Gordon told an audience at The Atlantic’s Power of Purpose conference this week. “I think pop culture has a huge role in bringing social change.”
Participant hired Gordon in 2017 as its first “chief impact officer,” which Gordon joked that her mother said “sounds dangerous,” but means that her mission is to leverage the story on the screen to bring social change in real life. “If the movie is the ‘What,’ the impact campaign is about the ‘Why,’” Gordon said.
In the case of Roma, the story of a live-in housekeeper for a rich Mexico City family, Participant sought to bring a spotlight on the struggles of domestic workers. “We launched a campaign in the U.S. with Ai-jen Poo and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and in Mexico with the Center for Support and Training of Household Employees and their leader Marcelina [Bautista] to advocate for workers’ rights for domestic workers,” Gordon told the Stanford Social Innovation Review. “This spring, a bill was passed by the Mexican legislature, [which] for the first time in Mexico’s history protects 2.5 million domestic workers across Mexico.” In the U.S., Participant worked with the NDWA to host screenings and panel discussions, as well as working with lawmakers in Washington to push for a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
Participant will follow Dark Waters with the release on Christmas Day of Just Mercy, the fact-based drama of lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s fight against the racially-charged, wrongful Death row conviction of a rural Alabama man. The film, starring Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson and Jamie Foxx, drew outpourings of emotion from the audience at a pre-release premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “The crowd at the Elgin [Theatre] erupted in ecstatic ovations through large parts of the film’s closing moments, most of the credits and part of the question-and-answer session,” the Washington Post reported.
Can the impact of such movies actually be quantifiable, like when citizens light a fire under elected officials? Quite possibly so, according a report issued today by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which projected the “risks from potential legislative action” in the wake of Dark Waters, as CNBC reported. The company targeted in the movie was DuPont, which in real life paid around $670 million to settle a class-action lawsuit based on about 3,550 personal-injury claims for dumping toxic chemicals known as PFAS compounds in landfills. (In the settlement, the company denied wrongdoing.) But the company singled out by Bank of America for a potential financial impact is 3M, because it too deals in PFAS compounds, which are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t biodegrade–and thus find their way into humans. So far, dozens of legislative bills have been introduced to deal with PFAS, Bank of America said. (“… the materials used by 3M have been tested and assessed to assure their safety for intended uses,” the company says on its website.)
Participant’s next giant-tamer is Slay the Dragon, to be released in March 2020, focusing on America’s confounding system of gerrymandering. Well-timed at the kickoff of an election year, Slay the Dragon will take on “a rigged system getting in the way of democracy,” said Gordon.
Stephen Koepp, a co-founder of From Day One, was previously executive editor of Time and Fortune. Along the way, he and his brother David co-wrote the movie The Paper