Hit film "Sound of Freedom" puts spotlight on controversial anti-trafficking nonprofit
Operation Underground Railroad, a controversial anti-sex-trafficking group founded in Utah, is the subject of celebration and scrutiny as a movie about its widely promoted rescue operations opens to big box office returns.
Driving the news: "The Sound of Freedom," which stars actor Jim Caviezel as OUR founder Tim Ballard, opened July 4 to what its studio and fans described as an upset, earning $14.2 million to "Indiana Jones'" $11.7 million the same day.
- Reality check: "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" had been out since the previous weekend, and $2.6 million of "Sound of Freedom's" opening-day earnings came from a crowdfunding ticket campaign, Indiewire reported.
Why it matters: The film, produced by Provo-based Angel Studios, is likely to bolster the immense political and fundraising support OUR enjoys from the political and religious right, especially in Utah.
- The group has ties to U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens and former Rep. Mia Love, and has been promoted by a number of Republican operatives and politicians, including former President Trump.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has lauded OUR, and the church's official bookstore, which carries materials that support the faith, sells several of Ballard's books. Other religious and right-leaning publications have praised the film.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is one of the group's most visible political champions.
- He joined Ballard on raids in Haiti and Colombia, and according to his LinkedIn profile, is a "global ambassador" for OUR and was associate producer of "Sound of Freedom."
- OUR has partnered with multiple law enforcement agencies, including the Utah AG's office.
- Some police departments claimed by OUR as "partners" in human trafficking arrests received "modest" grants as little as a few hundred dollars for training or equipment, according to Vice, which has reported extensively on the group.
- In 2020, OUR was under criminal investigation after Davis County prosecutor Troy Rawlings alleged that a local nonprofit falsely claimed involvement in the county's sex crime cases. But in May, the Deseret News reported the case was closed after Rawlings said he did "not believe that the decision to pursue charges against O.U.R. … is prudent."
OUR did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.
What they're saying: "To know thousands of adults will absorb ‘Sound of Freedom,’ this vigilante fever dream, and come away thinking themselves better informed on a hidden civilizational crisis … well, it’s profoundly depressing," wrote Miles Klee in a review for Rolling Stone.
- Conservative groups in particular have warned of child trafficking in conjunction with messaging on crime, immigration and race, gender roles and even masking during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Catch up quick: As recently as 2018, OUR enlisted non-tactical professionals on international raids: a real-estate investor, a Crossfit instructor, a mommy-blogger, an actress and politicians all joined OUR's "jumps," with cameras rolling.
- International operations are ongoing, with one in Honduras in March.
The latest: Last week, critics of Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline raised objections on social media after she posted that schools "are aiding and abetting human trafficking" by "brainwashing" children about LGBTQ+ identities.
- State Rep. Trevor Lee (R-Layton) and Sen. Nate Blouin (D-Salt Lake City) argued on Twitter last week over OUR's trustworthiness.
What we're watching: Ticket sales stayed relatively strong over the weekend, though most of its $40 million so far came before last Friday, according to Box Office Mojo.
- It was the weekend's third-highest-grossing movie, behind "Insidious: The Red Door" and "Indiana Jones."
More Salt Lake City stories
No stories could be found
Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Salt Lake City.