In one haunting moment from Liongate's upcoming thriller "Traffik," a young woman is drugged and loaded into a waiting truck by sex traffickers after having spent much of the night running for her life. Nina Simone's stirring "Strange Fruit" punctuates the scene, a touch that filmmaker Deon Taylor calls a "spiritual moment" intended to draw a parallel between trafficking and that other institution that commodifies people held against their will.
"I had to put that in there because [trafficking] is the modern-day slavery," Taylor said.
"Traffik," which was "shot with a microbudget," was produced in part by its star Paula Patton's Third Eye Productions.
"[Producing] is the only way to get the types of stories that I want to see made," Patton recently said during an interview in Los Angeles. "You can't sit there and hope — that's infuriating and maddening. So you must create your own future."
After small roles in the Will Smith rom-com "Hitch" and low-budget thriller "London," Patton graduated to leading lady status as André Benjamin's love interest in the 2006 Outkast musical "Idlewild." For the next few years she was one of Hollywood's "It" girls," costarring opposite Denzel Washington ("Deja Vu"), Kevin Costner ("Swing Vote") and Kiefer Sutherland ("Mirrors").
A critically acclaimed turn in the Oscar-nominated film "Precious" proved to be another breakthrough, and Patton went on to headline a pair of rare rom-coms marketed toward black audiences ("Baggage Claim" and "Jumping the Broom"). She also landed in blockbuster titles both successful (2011's "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol") and not (2016's "Warcraft"). But nowadays, the 42-year-old actress says she's interested only in roles that excite her.
"At this time in my life I want to be moved. I want to be inspired and I want to hopefully do work that moves people as well," Patton said. "At the end of the day the weird thing about what we [actors] do is that it's work and art. And to do both I feel like I have to love what I'm doing. I don't want to just do it if it's just work. Not anymore."
"Traffik" came to Patton through her friendship with Codeblack Films Chief Executive Jeff Clanagan, whose company partnered with Lionsgate in 2012 to release films targeted at African American audiences. Codeblack's most recent success was last summer's Tupac Shakur biopic "All Eyez on Me," and it will release the Sundance premiere "Blindspotting" later this summer.
"He said, 'Paula, I really want you to meet this director, and he's sent this script and I think it would be great for you,'" Patton said of Clanagan's pitch. "We kind of had fun, creative conversations — Deon, Jeff and myself. When they wanted to go [into production] I was signed on to do another movie. And then at the last minute they lost the money ... I was, like, 'Jeff, I'm available.'
"It's one of those weird sort of magical things: I said 'I'll do it' and a week later I was in Sacramento prepping and five days later we were shooting the movie."
The film, which Taylor wrote, directed and produced through his Hidden Empire Film Group, was shot in Northern California's Placer County, where the director lives with his wife, Roxanne Avent, a producer on the film, and their 13-year-old daughter, Milan. The project was inspired by true events.
"We started getting emails about kids being trafficked in our city and at the mall," Taylor said over tea in downtown L.A. "I remember thinking, 'Well, black people don't get trafficked so we're cool.'"
"But actually, [40% of victims] that are trafficked are African American," interjected Avent.
"And as I realized just how dumb my thought was," continued Taylor. "I began to realize just how big the epidemic was for kids being trafficked all over the world domestically."
In his research, Taylor found that cities with large communities living below the poverty line (including Oakland, San Francisco, Baltimore, Watts and Chicago) were most vulnerable to trafficking, due in part to high rates of kids in foster care.
"I started researching more and more, and that's when I said, 'Man, I want to do something around this,'" he said.
Filming in Placer County occupied several locations where trafficking stings actually took place. While shooting at a gas station that figures heavily in the film, Taylor was approached by a police officer who'd helped take down traffickers not long before: 15 miles up the road in a residential community local police acquired a search warrant after noticing five or six girls leaving the same house every night at midnight and returning at 4 a.m.
Upon raiding the house, the officers found 40 women and girls underground in a cave that was obscured by a carpet "like 'Silence of the Lambs,'" Taylor said.
"It gives your spirit a boost," he said. "As the movie progressed I was, like, 'Man, we're doing the right thing by making this movie.'"
Avent describes “Traffik” as a "love story turned into a thriller." Its mix of social issues with pulpy genre elements recalls gritty films from the ’70s — some might even describe it as a modern-day grind house movie.
For his part, Taylor wanted to avoid falling into the trap of genre films that have no interest in grappling with the nightmarish reality of their subject matter.
"I was really drawn to the challenge of trying to figure out how to put this type of backdrop into a thriller and not make it 'Taken,'" said Taylor, citing the 2008 Liam Neeson hit. "And that was the hardest thing to do, especially when you don't have any money.”
Patton hoped to create a film that would be as entertaining as it was educational. "For it to be great entertainment [the issue] needs to be in the background," she said. "I think that that's when art can be its most impactful socially because then you can reach so many people.
"People don't want to feel forced to do anything," she continued. "And I don't think we should force anyone. It's about bringing the truth to the surface and making people aware. And then they can make their own minds up about what they feel or what they want to do about it."
Patton's character Brea gets swept up in the world of trafficking while on a romantic getaway with her boyfriend, John, played by Omar Epps. The role required Patton to film several intimate scenes, something that no longer fazes the actress.
"I'm fairly comfortable, to be honest with you," Patton said of shooting the scenes. "I think as I've gotten older I care less what everyone thinks. I realize I've become … not an exhibitionist but a nudist. And I think that anybody that works around me knows that I'm naked a lot."
It was also important to both Patton and Taylor that although the film is about sex slavery, Brea should be a sexually confident woman to emphasize the distance between consensual and nonconsensual sex.
"The scenes with her in the bed with Omar [Epps' character] … what I'm demonstrating is how freely love comes when you're in love," Taylor explained. "How free sexuality is when you're in love with your partner. There are no boundaries. And then when the movie flips and everything happens, that same touch is cold. That same environment is different. And the tone of the movie changes."
"I think what was great about being a producer and a co-collaborator with Deon was that we were able to talk about how we could really explore relationships and human beings as they truly are to us," Patton said. "With films, if you make it all about the concept of scaring people, then sometimes you lose that specificity and uniqueness of the relationship."
Patton, a graduate of USC's film school, once dreamed of becoming a director, even making her own short films. "It's something that's close to my heart," she said. "I like the idea of bringing people together and making great entertainment."
During a soul-searching attempt to write a screenplay, Patton realized she preferred to be on the other side of the camera.
"I just had this moment where I was sitting at my desk and I realized what it was that I'd been wanting to do since I was a little girl — and that was act," she said.
These days Patton feels she's found the perfect mix of creative endeavors as both an actress and a producer.
"I'm not in a mood to fight for things," she said. "I feel excited about my career and I really feel like anything's possible and within my reach. I don't feel like fighting for [roles], but I do feel like working hard to try to create projects I'm passionate about."