The Flint Water Crisis Isn't Over In 2018, But Netflix's New Docuseries 'Flint Town' Shows That's Not Even The Only Problem
If you paid attention to the national news in 2016, chances are you've heard of the city of Flint, Michigan. The ongoing — even in 2018 — water crisis in Flint became a major talking point in the 2016 election, during which the Netflix docuseries Flint Town was filmed. While the conversation around Flint in the media centered around undrinkable water, Flint Town shows that the water crisis is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the struggles of living in Flint, MI. In fact, Flint Town barely mentions the water crisis in the first few episodes, focusing intensely instead on the understaffed Flint police department and the city's high crime rates.
Flint Town co-director Zackary Canepari tells Bustle, "Flint has kinda been portrayed as this one-dimensional place — poor and broken." The Netflix docuseries shows that while Flint is broken, it is not beyond repair. "Our show is about is the people there," Canepari explains, "not just the police but also the community there, they’re still fighting for it and still trying to make it work."
Co-director Jessica Dimmock points out that while Flint Town focuses on the police department, the water crisis has affected the entire city, creating an environment of institutional distrust. She thinks Flint citizens' ability to have faith in their government has been "eroded by the idea that people can’t trust one of the systems and institutions that are meant to protect them or just be reliable." Flint's water crisis may have made headlines, but Flint Town is putting the focus on the people, and observing how citizens treat each other when their city has failed them.
Co-director Drea Cooper describes the series to Bustle as "a very intimate exploration of police and police and community." The first season of Flint Town looks at the city of Flint through the lens of the Flint police department — 98 people meant to serve a city of 100,000. That would be a difficult task for any city of its size, but the city has been ranked the ninth-most violent city in America by the FBI according to Michigan Live. At one point in the series, a police officer explains that the high crime rate is caused by "poverty and a lack of opportunities," a sentiment that the filmmakers agree with.
The crime rate in Flint, MI may be high — but not for a lack of trying by the Flint police department. As seen in the series, the relationship between the Flint PD and the citizens can sometimes be one of empathy rather than conflict. "[It] was interesting ... to see an officer see it this way and understand it this way," Dimmock says of that relationship. Though, she's sure to note, "That is not [a consistent sentiment] across the board." Just as each American citizen has their own opinion on the duties and responsibilities of the police officers, so too do the police themselves.
One scene in particular from the first season captures the nuanced relationship between the police and the citizens of Flint. Almost halfway through the series, the police are dispatched to a liquor store parking lot, having received a call about four men — possibly with guns. This was only a few days removed from the police shooting of Philando Castile and the shooting of multiple police officers in Dallas in early July 2017 – "Talk about tensions being high," Cooper says.
In that moment, Cooper recalls expecting the police he was with "to pull across the street and pull their guns out behind the doors and start pointing and we’d have a standoff." However, when they approached the scene, Cooper watched the officers "hop out, they don’t even pull their guns, and they go right up to the suspects ... and immediately engage them ... Just sort of disarm and diffuse the situation immediately."
As Cooper explains, this approach comes from the fact that "the Flint police department is struggling so they don’t hire a lot of new guys, but they have a lot of veterans — guys that have been doing this 20 years, they have a different approach." There are experienced police officers in Flint, well-equipped to diffuse crime without conflict — so why are conditions so poor? As the filmmakers explain, the problem in Flint is not the people, but the institutions.
Canepari likens Flint's economic situation to a non-profit, stating that things are being run funded through "grants and donations." Canepari explains that "just recently, [Flint] got $3 million from the Kellogg foundation to help fund new jobs and they’re trying to make things happen but they just don’t have the support they need to really do it." Canepari thinks the problems in Flint are "almost entirely systematic. [Flint does not] have the resources or the support to make real lasting change."
This can be seen especially when it comes to the city's well-publicized water problems. As Michigan Live reported the "crisis arose after the city water system was allowed to use a new source of water without being required to treat it to make it less corrosive to lead in plumbing and pipes." Four years after the crisis began, the Flint government claims that Flint's water is safe to use and drink if filtered according to Voice of America but not all the citizens are accepting of the government's claims. And, pipe replacement isn't scheduled to be complete until 2020.
Flint resident Ariana Hawk told VoA that "Governor [Rick] Snyder say that we need to use that filter because our water is safe ... Our water is not safe." Despite Hawk and other Flint residents' belief that the water is not safe, Sheryl Thompson of the Flint Department of Health and Human Services claimed to VoA that "Some people do not trust regardless of what scientific data shows." Pondering the ongoing crisis, Dimmock says, "You wonder how [Flint] citizens are able to trust anything."
The problems within Flint go much deeper than the crime rate, extending to the aforementioned water systems, but also local politics, education systems, and journalism. If the series continues past Season 1, Canepari imagines Flint Town as "the documentary version of The Wire," focusing on a different institution within Flint, MI each season and how the people within that institution fight against systemic failings to try and make their city a better place to live.
Cooper sees Flint Town as a "cautionary tale to other cities, small and big," and hopes that the series will inspire viewers to engage with their own communities. "It’s not about every person helping Flint directly, but about looking at your own community, your own neighborhood. [Asking] what’s working, what’s not?" Flint may be a "broken" city, but throughout Flint Town it is shown time and time again that members of the community believe that there is still hope for their home. Citizens are shown meeting with police, openly discussing possible ways to improve their world despite a lack of financial resources. Flint Town is a show about how people, even in the darkest of circumstances, can still fight to make their world a better place.