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Oscar Grant’s daughter, Tatiana. (photo credit: Nijla Mu’min. Taken at the Oscar Grant Vigil in early 2010 at Fruitvale Bart Station.)

“He didn’t like to be left alone.”

Oscar Grant’s mother Wanda, played superbly by Octavia Spencer, delivers this line in one of the most compelling scenes in the film. It is a detail, that when considered in the context of the story, hits us on all sides, and most importantly, in the heart. Details like these penetrate the divisive rhetoric framing Oscar Grant as a saint or a criminal. Instead, he is a son who didn’t want to be left alone by his mother, a detail so specific and tangible that the story can only be felt at that point, not categorized, or framed.

The film centers on the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, a black Bay Area resident who was fatally shot in the back in the early hours of New Years Day 2009 after being detained by BART Police at Fruitvale Station, all of which was captured on Bart bystander’s cell phone cameras.

Michael B. Jordan delivers a whirlwind performance as Oscar Grant, one that sees him take on several micro- performances dictated by the personality of Grant. During the Q&A for the film, director Ryan Coogler spoke about his research of Grant, saying, “If you go to five different people, you get five different stories (of Grant).” This is best conveyed in a grocery store scene where Grant jovially assists an unknowing white female customer with a fried fish recipe, while maintaining a friendly exchange with a coworker, followed by an emotionally- heated interaction with the grocery store manager. Jordan skillfully navigates the varied textures of Grant, situating himself into different modes of empathy, anger, and joy. Of the role, he said, “…I’m not a political activist, I’m an actor and through my work I’m able to spark conversations between people, and get emotions out of people to start questioning how we treat one another.”

His performance is a great complement to Coogler’s direction and script, where nuance and foreshadowing are handled with a level of subtlety that doesn’t overemphasize their presence, but captures them in striking, understated ways. The Bay Area itself becomes a character, populated by black beanies, water rushing onto the rocks of the bay, and that distinct diction and physical bravado embodied by Grant and his friends, all framed beautifully by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who shot on super 16mm film here.

With that foreshadowing and characterization, comes a rising tension in both Grant and the film that makes the happiest moments- Grant playfully brushing his teeth with his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) – bittersweet.  The sound design accelerates the tension, merging with the industrial, metallic rumble of the Bart train moving in and out of tunnels. The Bart becomes a warning, an element of dread in this way.

This is a film for the people, a film for feelers and thinkers who want to see a story about a flawed person who loved his daughter and family, and wanted something better in life even if he didn’t quite know how to get it. It is not a film about blame or about the cop who pulled the trigger, and it may be criticized for that lack of emphasis. But at a time where human beings like Grant are murdered and then scrutinized by the media about their “criminal background,” the film is important and necessary. It argues for a life that mattered to a daughter, and leaves us to wrestle with the hard questions of how this tragedy impacts her, and people like her.

Fruitvale Station opens in theaters July 12th. Visit the website for more information.

This Review is cross-posted on Shadow & Act on the Indiewire Network, HERE.

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It was like something out of a movie. Big city girl goes to visit small, southern town. She gets lost…

I visited Louisiana two weeks ago to location scout for my thesis film, Deluge. Though New Orleans is the central location for the film, my search for a safe, natural body of water led me to places outside of the city. While driving to an outlying city called Franklinton, I got lost. The GPS on my cell phone couldn’t detect a signal to the park where the river was located. I drove on, confident that I could determine the Bogue Chitto State park from road signs. Only, there were none. The signs were replaced by heat that penetrated the air condition in my rental car. I started to sweat. With foliage and trees on both sides of me, I tried to determine whether I was going the right direction. Before I could do that, a large black snake scurried out from the brush and slithered across the road. I swerved, not wanting to run over it. I turned around, called the park office and was greeted by a friendly woman named Jody who stayed on the phone with me for 30 minutes as I made my way to Bogue Chitto Park.

I drove in a long maze trying to locate the Bogue Chitto river. My phone was low on battery and I had no car charger. But I was determined to see this river. When I reached it, I was greeted by a sign that said “Swim at your own risk.” Babies, women, and fathers waded in the river, swimming and circling each other.

I was there to look at the water.

I believe all water carries spirits. This water carried some spirits. They said something but I didn’t immediately listen. Call me a crazy filmmaker but I remained, taking photos of the water for possible inclusion in my film. I was the only black person at the river, which didn’t surprise me because I’d been the only black person on all my water visits; further inspiration for my examination into black people’s relationships to water.

I believe something happened in that water. Something that rolled through the air and settled in the rocks. Still, I stayed. I stayed even though I couldn’t envision my film happening at this river. Something about this river didn’t want my body in it. River warning. I exited the park.

In my car, I devoured half of a warm sandwich that I purchased earlier that day. A shrill, male voice filtered through my car window.

“Can I get a piece of that sandwich,” it asked. I looked over to see two men in dirty white t-shirts standing by a van. They smiled. In a mixture of heat-induced confusion, I smiled and shook my head, motioning that I wasn’t interested in talking. But that didn’t deter them.

One of the men leaned into my window and said, “Did I scare you?” He laughed. I again smiled, but this time said, “No.” But I was lying. Their intrusion did scare me, as much as it confused me. I was hungry, thirsty, and low on cell phone battery and just wanted to get out of there. The one man continued.

“Can I open your car door?,” he asked. I braced my steering wheel, ready to pull off at any moment. He opened the door, breaking the glass barrier between us. A sour odor came with him. “I want a car like this, but all my friends say it’s for women,” he said. I nodded, wanting so bad to close the door on his hand.

“Where are you from?” he said. His friend leaned into the car. “California,” I cursed myself silently as soon as I said. Their eyes doubled in size. The air in the car got so thick and my heart was pounding to the point of explosion. I knew then what that river was telling me. What the black snake was telling me. What the dying GPS was telling me. That I didn’t belong at this park. At this river full of spirits. These men were like the spawns of unsettled heat and suffocation.

Back to the car and I’m looking ahead through my windshield at more green foliage. The men are waiting for some type of invitation. “We’ll leave you alone,” one of them says. He closes the door and I feel sweat under my shirt. Moisture in my hair and eyebrows, and fear in my stomach. They walk to the river in their dingy shirts.

With my cell phone on its last cell of life, I didn’t know how’d find my way back to New Orleans, but something in me knew I would. And I did. I arrived in Uptown and found comfort in a giant Walmart, where I bought a car phone charger and flirted with a cute salesman. The air was wetter than it was in Franklinton. It washed into my pores. I’d found my back.

Through out pre-production for Deluge, I’ve encountered numerous obstacles, some that have strengthened my will to get the project made, some that have frustrated me to the point of tears, and some like this, that lead me to layered, textured understandings of the power of water, of intuition, of spirits, and of instinct. I shouldn’t have went to that river, or rather, I shouldn’t have went to that river by myself. Though my previous water visits were pleasant and welcoming, this water was not. It flowed heavy. Though I could write a whole safety essay on what I “should’ve done,” I’ll instead say what I have to do.

I have to make this film.

I have to get back to New Orleans. I have to interact with these bodies of water even more. I have to talk to more African Americans about their relationships to water. I have to swim in Pontchartrain on the North shore again. I have to bring black mermaids to life.

At every obstacle, at every refusal for help or assistance, at every pillar of frustration that keeps me up late into the night, there’s a spirit, an instinct, a dream, a water whisper saying I have to make this film. I have to find my way back, like I found my way back to New Orleans from that heavy river. And from then on, I listened to the moisture in the air, to the rain that fell, to the air, and I was alright in New Orleans. I knew where I belonged and where my film belonged.

We have 45 more days to raise $25,000 to make this film, through our Indiegogo campaign. ANY contribution helps us move forward. This is the only way we’ll be able to make this film. I’m a graduate student and my school offers no financial assistance for students to fund their films. We are asking for your contributions and support to bring this film to life; to bring black bodies into the water, to talk about black bodies in water and why some don’t get in the water, to engage with water mythology, to follow the emotional journey of a young girl who is called to the water.

Help us make our way back home. Join us. Learn more about the film. Contribute now: http://www.indiegogo.com/Deluge?a=539176