It’s been 1,262 days since Flint, Michigan residents have been without clean water.
When the news first broke out that the Midwestern city had no drinking water, folks on social media were enraged, news outlets rushed to provide up-to-the-day updates, and multiple donation initiatives were started to help alleviate the issue. It was considered a crisis, a dire problem about which we were all concerned.
But then the nightclub shooting in Orlando happened in 2016. Then Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico residents without power. Following that was the concert shooting in Las Vegas which left 58 people dead. And California faced its worst natural disaster with sweeping brush fires just this month. Sadly, that doesn’t even begin to cover the back-to-back national crises America has endured over the last few years.
Meanwhile, with its hashtag no longer a top trending topic, Flint is still without water and little has been done about it.
But the tv film FLINT has put it back into the conversation, in spite of intense backlash on social media for a film being made when the crisis has yet to be resolved. The movie, which premiered Saturday night on Lifetime, traces the water crisis from day one through the eyes of four women (played by Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Betsy Brandt, Marin Ireland), who decided to stand up against a system that was slowly killing them and their loved ones each day with lead-poisoned water. Though it does give us a very basic timeline of events from April 2014 through the October 2015 ruling to revert Flint’s water source back to the much cleaner water in Detroit, FLINT also humanizes the people behind the crisis—the victims, their families, and the activists who chose to no longer tolerate injustice.
For instance, Queen Latifah plays Iza Banks, a mother whose daughter Adina (Lyndie Greenwood) loses her unborn baby as a result of the drinking water 18 weeks into her pregnancy. Ireland stars as the real life Melissa Mays, who is diagnosed with early stages of Cirrhosis and other diseases. Brandt’s LeeAnn Walters’ hair is falling out and her sons now have skin allergies. And Nayyirah Shariff (Scott), who serves as both narrator and outspoken resident in the early fight to bring the issue to the headlines, suffers from frequent vomiting. Even when the story was “popular,” we rarely heard about the people of the city, and how the crisis was affecting the residents. Yes, it was always a political and economic issue, as the plot heavily detailed the corrupt city council system, but it also was and remains a human issue—a basic right to have clean water.
Another thing that the film brought to light was the role of race in activism. When we meet Nayyirah at the beginning of the film, she’s riding her bike along the street, and pauses at a stop sign next to LeeAnn who’s driving in her car. She acknowledges LeeAnn with a nod, but LeeAnn looks through her and down the road. It’s not until LeeAnn, fed up with what’s going on with the water in the community, is compelled to go to a city council meeting and encounters Nayyirah once again—when she finds herself perhaps for the first time in a position of disadvantage and in a room filled with people of color who are likely regulars at the forum. While FLINT doesn’t dwell on the race and the social politics of activism across the city as much as it could have, choosing instead to present a sisterhood among them who dined together and bonded, screenwriter Barbara Stepansky with director Bruce Beresford did include the line, “If this country won’t listen to a bunch of old white ladies, then we’re screwed,” which Nayyirah casually uttered. But it was met with amusement and chuckles by the other women, and not taken seriously as a real issue. You can argue that the crisis wasn’t taken seriously until the group of women increased or, much more to Nayirrah’s point, you can say that the crisis wasn’t real until there were some white faces behind it. Who knows how long Nayyirah had been coming to that city council meeting, complaining about the same issue. But the fact that what we saw in the film was LeeAnn coming to the meeting, then the issue almost immediately catapulted into something much more high profile, isn’t lost on me and I’m sure didn’t slip by other viewers as well.
It’s not a perfect film and it will be interesting to see where the conversation goes from here (if it moves forward at all), but FLINT centers women, in particular black women, in yet another civil rights movement when they are too often pushed to the margins. It also serves as another example of shady policies in local governments, especially in areas that are already ignored and on the sidelines, which too often work against their citizens. It’s a deeply personal narrative but hopefully one that spark further discourse.