Nearly a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the idea of slavery in America readily conjures up images of heat-blistered cotton fields, workers singing spirituals and nighttime races for freedom. But rarely do we think about the reported 1 million humans living in squalid bondage in the United States today. Couple this figure with the estimated 27 million victims of human trafficking worldwide and a disturbing fact emerges: More people suffer in slavery today than at the height of African oppression. Opening this week, Call + Response is a nonprofit film that strives to give a voice to the victims of this largely invisible crime.
Director/producer Justin Dillon has never made a film before, nor is he a seasoned lobbyist but rather a passionate musician who wanted to shine a light on this travesty. While touring in Russia with his band Tremolo, Dillon spoke with girls who were in danger of being lured into bondage. After returning to the United States, he began investigating human trafficking and was incensed by what he found.
While his initial hope was to organize benefit concerts to raise awareness, the project developed into a celluloid concert for a cause. Traveling across the globe to capture live performances by cutting-edge musical artists, Dillon spoke with activists, politicians and former slave workers, gathering the material to assemble a rough, but passionate invective against modern slavery.
Intermixed with interviews of prominent figures such as Madeleine Albright, Cornel West and Nicholas Kristof, are exclusive performances by Moby, Imogen Heap, Natasha Bedingfield, Matisyahu, Cold War Kids and several others. The film also shares the experiences of celebrity activists such as Ashley Judd, Julia Ormond and Daryl Hannah. Dillon has gone to extraordinary lengths to expose the public to this issue while making a work that will be of interest to several types of audiences.
As a product, Call + Response is an enthusiastic but uneven venture. Most of the musical selections weren't written with this issue in mind (with the fantastic exception of a performance by Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier), and the attempts to match them with the film's message make for a sometimes messy collision. This is most jarring during Talib Kwali's performance, where the screen flashes syncopated images of bikini-clad sex workers, a device so stereotypical of hip-hop music videos that it takes a moment to remember that the women aren't willing participants. But the film succeeds in bringing the modern abolitionist cause to the attention of a younger audience. Call + Response is not designed to lure fans of Albright, but the inclusion of marketable celebrities ensures that they can still benefit from the information she and other experts offer.
As a project, the film overcomes its shortcomings or inconsistencies by both creating awareness and providing an avenue of action for those who don't have the resources or knowledge to learn and participate further. Callandresponse.com provides a rallying point where the public can garner more information, track the progress of several specific humanitarian projects and make donations. All proceeds from the film and its companion soundtrack go back to fighting worldwide slavery.
Call + Response is an important starting point for introducing a new abolitionist movement. Pairing entertainment with serious content is a difficult blend, but the film's message outweighs its artistic imbalances. Dillon's passion for music and justice is apparent in every frame, and the film's very possible aim to create a community of change makes it a must-see.