A recent news item resonated with actor Omar Epps perhaps more than it would have not too long ago. “I just read an article a couple of weeks ago about an airline stewardess. She’s doing her job, and something felt off about a couple of people, and she decided to say something to her superiors. Lo and behold, it ended up being that a girl was being trafficked. This stuff happens all the time.”
Though a quintessential fun, date night sort of film, Traffik tackles a serious issue. Epps explains, “The film deals with the issue of human trafficking, which is really a problem in our society. Most people think of trafficking as an international problem or associate it with third world countries. You don't think Detroit, New Jersey, San Diego. It's right underneath our nose. We wanted to shine a light on that issue and entertain while informing.”
Out on digital today, Traffik stars Epps opposite Paula Patton as John, a guy in love and about to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Brea, during their weekend getaway to the mountains. Epps describes the scenario: “We’re just trying to enjoy a getaway, and things happen in a way that they could never anticipate.”
So John and Brea get in their hot car and drive along with the wind in their faces and Earth, Wind & Fire on the radio. Despite their evident and infectious happiness, when we spy a tractor-trailer making the turn into the same gas station rest stop as them, we instinctively know things are about to go downhill. The scene hearkens back to the classic Steven Spielberg 1970’s chase thriller Duel. In that film, the sexy car was a red Plymouth Valiant; here it’s a silver Chevy Chevelle.
On a pit stop, they run into a group of human traffickers, and while trying to do the right thing, the couple and their best friends who later join them incur the traffickers' wrath. The dream weekend turns into the proverbial nightmare. John, who restores cars professionally, soon gets ambushed by a bunch of redneck, forgotten man types. Resentful of John’s success, they resort to accusing him of negatively racially profiling them, and all hell breaks loose. He and Brea manage to get out of there in one piece and continue on their merry way, but the nightmare is recurring.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of playing John for Epps was working with Patton. “Paula and I have known each other for years, so it was great we finally got to work together, and we were really excited about creating an interesting dynamic with these characters.”
Epps is also happy to be part of a film that is very much in the spirit of the #MeToo movement. Patton’s character drives most of the action in the movie, both concerning her efforts to literally and symbolically liberate the entrapped women and her romantic relationship, as well. Epps comments, “Whereas usually when you see a couple on screen, it’s the man who is usually apprehensive about commitment and things of that nature. But this is different and getting to play within those layers of vulnerability and have the woman in the power position was fun for me, and it's about time. It is long overdue.”
Speaking of long, Epps is still going strong in Hollywood after more than two decades. He has appeared in multiple successful, well-received projects in film and television, including the romance classic Love and Basketball. It's a film that remains special to him. With a hint of awe in his voice, he says, “It's amazing. I love the fact that it has stood the test of time, and that's a testament to Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed it. It is a testament to the storytelling skill she brought to the table. I’m happy she allowed us to ‘dance’ within her creativity. It’s amazing to see younger generations respond to something from so long ago. So that's always an honor.”
Epps credits his humility and spirituality, in part, for his longevity. “When it comes to the work, you try to work with the opportunities afforded you. Make good choices, choices that have a marathon effect, not a sprint effect.” He cautions, “You have to treat people with respect and be humble. You have to be a good person, right? People like working with people who they like. Before all of that, keep God first or whatever your belief system is. Walk in that path.”
In addition to his plans to venture into screenwriting and directing, Epps recently completed a very personal project. Over the past three years, the father of three has worked on a book about fatherhood. Called From Fatherless to Fatherhood, it was inspired by an interaction with his son. “I had a moment with my son years ago that caused me to reflect on my life, and I questioned whether having grown up without a father had impacted my being a father. So I began this exploration of self and began to unpack my life up to that point.” About halfway through this process of introspection, Epps began to think maybe the work he was doing could help not just him, but other men who were in his position. “In our community, we've made many strides when it comes to the issue of fatherhood, but we've got a long way to go, so I wanted to try to help change the narrative.”
He is seeking to fill a need for spaces where men can be vulnerable to childhood traumas with his book. “As men, we don't have a lot of forums to discuss our anguish and pain and things of that nature. So we normalize our trauma and just pack it away. As you grow up and you become a parent yourself, these things start to seep out in their own ways. I wanted to write this book to open up the door for us to have these conversations.”
Traffik (of course) and Get Out are the films Epps selected as being his favorite over the past couple of years. He is excited about the way that black cinema is evolving and gives much of the credit to the determination of modern filmmakers to create films that reflect the entirety of black lives. He emphasizes, “We are not taking no for an answer anymore. These types of black films have been around for decades. They just weren’t getting made. I've read a whole bunch of different scripts set in situations where you don't typically see African Americans. They were being written; they just weren't getting to the finish line with being funded and made. So now you have this young crop of filmmakers who are kicking ass, and I'm happy. I’m really proud!”
He stresses that filmmakers must be guided by an ethos that demands completion of a goal regardless of circumstances. “At the end of the day,” he advises, “it's about opportunity. You take the opportunities you’ve been given, but we also have to create our own opportunities. Like Tyler Perry's been talking about: 'Stop waiting to sit at someone else's table. Let’s make our own table.'”