Directing the Black American Dream

Filmmaker and local Deon Taylor works his way up the Hollywood ranks

Filmmaker Deon Taylor

Filmmaker Deon Taylor

Photos courtesy of Deon Taylor

There’s a calmness inside Deon Taylor’s Granite Bay home. It’s 100 degrees outside, but a cool 76 in. It’s quiet, save for the muffled sounds from the tree trimmers stuffing branches in a chipper just outside.

The two of us sit in chairs opposite each other. Taylor, 41, reclines in his chair, stretches his legs out, resting one atop the other.

I ask, “Are you the only black person on this block?”

His roaring laugh fills the room. “That’s funny as hell, man,” he says. “No, there’s one other person out here. We’re the two black dudes that live out here.”

Taylor is one of a number of black filmmakers recently pushed into success. While others like Will Packer (Girls Trip, Ride Along), Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) and Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) have solidified roles in Hollywood, Taylor says he understands that he’s just cracking the surface. In 10 years, Taylor went from creating slasher films with Brian Hooks and Flavor Flav to directing Paula Patton, Omar Epps and Dennis Quaid in some of his latest projects.

It took a while for the filmmaker to get to this place in life—a big house for his family tucked away in a gated community, far from the types of neighborhoods where he grew up. He’s achieved one version of the Black American Dream—making it out of a crime-ridden community to become successful enough to move his family somewhere better.

“This, to me, was what you work for. This is why you do what you do, so you can set your family up and make sure your kids don’t have to come from the environment that you came from.”

In high school, Taylor moved to Sacramento from Gary, Indiana, a city that was once the country’s murder capitol. He started playing basketball and eventually earned an athletic scholarship to San Diego State University.

Despite going to Germany to play professionally after college, it wasn’t basketball that he wanted to pursue—it was film.

“What I would do is rent movies, from Toxic Avenger all the way to The Omen,” Taylor recalls. “Anything scary, I was just fascinated with. So as I got older and learned just a tad bit about the business, somebody asked me what kind of movie I wanted to make, I said that the first thing I wrote was a horror.”

That movie was Dead Tone, a low-budget slasher flick reminiscent of the late ’90s movies Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Taylor followed that up with The Hustle, a comedy starring the late Charlie Murphy, two TV series and horror-thriller types that had limited releases.

After years of making small budget, limited-release movies that saw relative financial success, Taylor created his biggest movie: Meet the Blacks stars comedians Mike Epps, Lil Duval and Charlie Murphy, and is a parody of The Purge franchise in which all law is suspended once per year, and all crime is permitted.

The plot of Meet the Blacks goes like this: After coming into some money, Carl Black (Epps) moves his family from Chicago to an upper-class neighborhood in Los Angeles to escape the annual purge. Unfortunately, some of the people he wronged in his past follow him to the West Coast, specifically to get revenge on the one night when everything is legal.

Behind the scenes of <i>Traffik</i> with Paula Patton, left, and Deon Taylor.

Like his other movies, Meet the Blacks was low budget. Taylor shot the movie a few houses down from his own. Some of his neighbors, he says, were even extras in the movie.

“We put that movie out from that front room right there,” Taylor explains, pointing toward his small home office. “I shot the movie, got everybody to come down here and do a favor and shot it up here.”

The movie was a success financially, bringing in more than $9 million at the box office after being produced on a budget of roughly $900,000.

“That movie was made by me for, like, us,” he said, referring to black culture. “I told Mike, Duval, and all of [the comedians], ’Yo, let’s just do us.’ I didn’t try to pull anything back. That’s how we talk. That’s what you say daily. That’s what I say daily.”

The movie opened No. 8 at the box office, going up against movies like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zootopia. It was such a success that Taylor is filming a sequel later this year.

“Right now, we are trending in that way in Hollywood, where people are saying, ’We need to check Hidden Empire [Taylor’s film company] to see what’re they doing,’” Taylor explains. “Now more projects are coming—we’re trying to figure it out.”

Hidden Empire is scheduled to release two movies in 2018: Motivated Seller and Traffik. The former is a psychological thriller starring Michael Ealy, Meagan Good and Dennis Quaid.

Deon Taylor, left, and Omar Epps on the set of <i>Traffik</i>.

The thriller Traffik was recently bought by Lionsgate and is scheduled for release on April 27, 2018. Like Meet the Blacks, Taylor shot Traffik in Sacramento. Some of the scenes were shot in SN&R’s office.

Paula Patton (also a producer) stars as a journalist who goes on a romantic getaway with her boyfriend, played by Omar Epps. The two get caught in the crosshairs of a gang after they unknowingly come into possession of some evidence of the gang’s sex trafficking exploits.

“It was truly a labor of love, and a very collaborative piece for everybody,” Patton recently said in an interview with film website Collider. “It was something I hope I really get to do again.”

For Taylor, Traffik is something he has striven for his entire career—to write, direct and produce a film independently, then sell it to a big studio for a wide release. It’s a benchmark he expects to achieve more often, he says.

“That movie, to me, that’s 13 years in the making,” Taylor explains. “That is how you want to do it. … That’s the first time we’ve ever completed that circle as a company. Now everything else I’ve got is going the same way. It’s gotta be the norm now.”