In 12 Years a Slave, by recounting the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who became a victim of slavery during the 1800s, director Steve McQueen aimed, in his own detached and aestheticizing way, to explore the attitudes and mechanisms that allowed such a monstrous institution to flourish. A like-minded impulse underpins Tricked, Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson’s documentary about what Barack Obama has publicly denounced as “modern slavery.” The documentary is as much an exploration of a whole sordid ecosystem of exploitation as it is a piece of activism, and as such it’s admittedly quite impressive in its scope and detail.
In Tricked, we not only hear from the victims of human trafficking and the law-enforcement officials who struggle to bring the perpetrators to justice, but also, perhaps most astonishingly, from some of the perpetrators themselves: the pimps who ensnare naïve young women into prostitution and the johns who willingly throw money at them. A pimp who goes by the name of Robert Money not only opens the film by drawing a distinction between a prostitute and a whore (the former has sex for money, the latter doesn’t), but even claims he’s doing a favor for some of these women, showing them love and affection like no one else. On the other side of the same coin, a middle-aged john named Hugh goes so far as to evoke the “I’m only human” defense in order to justify his paid lechery. Through figures like those two, Wells and Wasson offers an unflinching look into the ways sex slavery continues to perpetuate, with pimps preying on the immature naïveté of vulnerable girls regarding matters of sex and love, a wider culture that pushes material wealth by any means necessary as a kind of modern-day American dream, and a legal system that’s somewhat helpless in combating the root causes of this kind of exploitation.
As laudable as the film’s comprehensive look at its unsavory subject matter is, Tricked ultimately still feels somewhat limited in the end. At one point, Debbie, a woman identified in the film as a “pimp cup lady,” says that these pimps have no other way to make their money—a revealing statement that nevertheless suggests one path of investigation on which Wells and Wasson don’t really venture. Why do these people think pimping is the only thing they can do to make it rich? Are there larger societal and cultural forces that lead these people to assume the attitudes they do toward sex and money? For all the heartbreaking depth with which the filmmakers explore the horrors of human trafficking, the film still leaves one with a sense of a larger story just beyond their grasp.