A new documentary in the works, OAKLEAD, focuses on lead poisoning in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, and beyond.
The project is directed by Alex J. Bledsoe, an emerging and accomplished filmmaker who has already made her mark in the film world. She was recently named one of YBCA’s 100 Honorees for 2020. Bledsoe’s first film, which is still in the works, is also the one that lead her to pursuing this path as a filmmaker.
Bledsoe first learned of lead poisoning in Oakland when the news made headlines in 2016 that the neighborhood she was living in, Fruitvale, had lead contamination worse than in Flint, Michigan. In fact, the same report showed that 3,000 other locations in the U.S. had lead poisoning worse than in Flint.
“I’ve been on a journey to figure out why lead poisoning, the longest pediatric epidemic in U.S. history, is still ongoing, and why there is a lack of widespread awareness and institutional action on the issue,” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe was working a tech job in Silicon Valley in 2016, but found herself researching the topic during her commute. She eventually quit her job to pursue filmmaking full-time. Describing it as environmental racism, Bledsoe hopes to shine a light on this “silent, national epidemic that needs immediate attention.”
Bledsoe was a one-woman team for a while when she started the documentary project in 2017, and later, Vincent Cortez contributed cinematography. Adrian L. Burrell joined the project as producer.
In 2018 while still developing the documentary, Bledsoe co-founded Breaktide Productions, a film company created by women of color, with co-founders Jalena Keane-Lee (Standing Above the Clouds) and Reaa Puri (K for Kashmir).
While working on OAKLEAD, Bledsoe directed and produced other films. Bledsoe is a line producer for the narrative feature film Residue, which has won festival awards and has garnered rave reviews from the New York Times, Rolling Stones, The New Yorker, and beyond. The film centers around a screenwriter who returns to Washington, D.C. and witnesses the effects of gentrification. Residue is now streaming on Netflix.
Bledsoe has another film in post-production, a short documentary titled Heart Race, about her cousin who is seeking a heart transplant and focuses on his life and trials of navigating the health care system. All of the projects she works on, whether documentaries or films for corporations such as Nike, focus on social issues or the intersection of health, environment, and race.
Even though the headlines around lead poisoning have largely disappeared, it continues to impact families in Oakland and throughout the United States. An estimated half a million children in the U.S. currently experience lead poisoning. It can affect a child’s brain development, leading to neurological damage with effects such as learning disabilities and behavioral issues, and sometimes even death. The lead can be inhaled or ingested from old paint, and also from contaminated dust, soil and water.
Bledsoe is currently seeking more families from Oakland, and any families in the Bay Area, who may be interested in sharing their stories. If interested, please contact her via her website or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Alex Bledsoe is an alumna of the Maynard 200 Fellowship, a project of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Oakland Voices is a project of the Maynard Institute.