Just look at 29-year-old Michael Cory Davis, and you might wonder why he has yet to become a household name. He's an attractive young actor with chocolate-brown skin, shoulder-length locks and endearing eyes, who may end up getting more attention for his activism than his work in Hollywood.
If you can get beyond his striking good looks and actually listen to what he has to say, you'll find an adamant and articulate activist with an infectious passion for combating global injustice.
This passion is quite evident in his latest film, "Cargo: Innocence Lost," which sheds much-needed light on the billion-dollar sex trafficking and forced prostitution industry. For the past four years, Davis has been working as an activist for sex trafficking victims, after he found unexpected celebrity in eastern Europe and was approached to lend his name to the cause.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Davis then pursued his dream of becoming an actor for six years in Los Angeles, before he found his life's mission in, of all places, Sofia, Bulgaria.
As one of the few black faces in the small European country and a former cast member of the popular soap operas "All My Children" and "The Bold and the Beautiful," he became an instant celebrity while shooting two feature-length films for the Sci Fi Channel there in 2003.
"The Bulgarian media got wind that I was in the country … and they blew me up to be this huge celebrity," Davis remembers. "I would have all these kids run up to me and speak to me as if they knew me. In the space of three weeks of being in Bulgaria, I had more success than I had in Los Angeles."
Finding a Mission
As Bulgaria embraced Davis, he found one group that was interested in using his star power for a greater purpose. Face to Face Bulgaria, an independent organization that focuses on sex trafficking and forced prostitution education and prevention, asked Davis to attend one of its fundraising events.
"I went to the organization … and I looked at pictures, read stories, and got a full complete understanding of what was happening in their country and … all over the world to the young women and boys … being manipulated into forced prostitution," Davis explained.
As many as 500,000 people are trafficked in Europe every year, the majority of whom are women and girls forced into prostitution. And Bulgaria is a "source, transit and destination country" for men and women trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation, according to the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report released in June.
Davis then gladly accepted the group's invitation to get involved, and he decided to use film to help prevent future victims of human trafficking, and tell the stories of victims worldwide.
"I was so moved by the spirit of these kids ԡ who suffered through such horrific crimes, you know, against their body and against their being and they still had a spark of life," Davis said, "and … a reality hit me in the way that I have to do something to keep that spark alive in them and help the victims."
Davis realized media would be the best tool to educate as traffickers prey on vulnerable children and women in areas where they don't get information about this crime.
"But what they do have is access to television and access to music," Davis said. "So I figure if I can use my artistry to create something and give it to organization[s] so that they can use it to visually show … how dark the world of trafficking and forced prostitution is, then they would have a picture in their head … for the rest of their life."
Awards and Awareness
Davis' first project took the form of a short narrative film about a 13-year-old Bulgarian girl who was forced into prostitution and held captive for eight months, who did the unthinkable and tried to escape.
Davis wrote and directed "Svetlana's Journey" and produced it with TopForm Studios. Financial backing was provided by M-Tel, the top Bulgarian cell phone provider. Since its completion in 2005, the film has received international recognition and won three awards -- one for Best Short at the Hollywood Film Festival, and two at the HD Film Festival for Best HD Short and Best Dramatic HD Short.
More important to Davis than the awards, though, is the awareness his work helps spread.
"The No. 2 television station in Bulgaria, for free, put 'Svetlana's Journey' on TV," Davis said, "and more than half the population of Bulgaria saw [it], and to me that was the highest note that I could have ever left the country on."
Eight months after the film was released, feeling that his work was done, Davis returned to Los Angeles.
As his film grew in popularity, U.S. organizations started to take notice. The YMCA, the Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the Salvation Army and the Los Angeles Police Department asked to use the film to spread awareness about sex trafficking.
Davis met several victim advocates, and he learned just how prevalent sex trafficking and forced prostitution is right here in the states.
"I started to learn that this crime was happening to young children in America as well as foreign nationals being brought to America," Davis recounted, "and no one was putting a magnifying glass on that."
The U.S. government has estimated that 800,000 people are bought, sold and smuggled worldwide each year. Between 14,500 and 17,500 of them make their way to the United States from at least 72 countries all over the world. How does this happen?
"It happens because people don't believe its happening," Davis explained. "From big cities to suburbs to inner cities, it is prevalent and it is everywhere. We have all the resources to stop it, and all because people are unaware of it … this crime is growing and is becoming a huge epidemic."
Follow-Up Film in U.S.
Haunted by the stories of two victims of trafficking at one of his film screenings in Houston, Davis felt an obligation yet again to tell their stories but still did not expect this to become such a personal cause. "It was a small seed at that time, and I didn't know it would develop into something bigger," he said.
Last year he started work on his second film, "Cargo: Innocence Lost," and completed the documentary in April, which details sex trafficking in the United States.
"I hope people get two things out of my films," he said. "I hope that one, people understand that they can make a difference, be it in the world of human trafficking or something else that they believe in. Two, and for me most important, to spread awareness about human trafficking. The more people know about this crime, the less power traffickers have to manipulate the vulnerable youth in this society," he said.
He's now bringing that message to colleges and churches as part of "I Stop Traffic," and continues his work with human rights groups.
In the midst of spreading awareness, he is still pursuing his dream of being a Hollywood triple threat -- actor, writer and director -- to create more varied and multidimensional characters for actors of color to portray.
"I figured … if no one is writing and producing these types of roles for actors, then I'll do it for myself," he said, "not only to put myself in a role but to put the tons of actors and actresses that I know who are African-American, Latino, in better roles for themselves as well."