(BARNHART FILMS/SABOTAGE FILM GROUP (85 minutes; Unrated); 2019)
Some cities are known for unique landmarks: We have the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge and its rich cultural history. Some cities have incredible skylines like Chicago and New York, or are hubs of vitality or historical significance. But poor Flint, Michigan? Not so much. This sad sack of a town first had to deal with GM pulling its factories out and decimating the employment situation, something Michael Moore covered in his documentary, ROGER AND ME. And not long after that? Well, there was kind of a water problem. You know, the color, the toxic nature of it, the corrupt state governor Rick Snyder refusing to do shit for years, people dying, that kind of thing. Talk about a raw deal! This was more like a raw SEWAGE deal, literally and metaphorically, as Flint residents kept asking questions about what was happening to their children and why no one would give them answers about the water crisis in their little city. It’s the difficult subject of a fine documentary by David Barnhart, FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY. Choose your beverage carefully when you watch this thing.
“The system here is telling you that you aren’t worth anything,” says one of the besieged local residents interviewed for the movie. “This isn’t supposed to be happening in America.” No, it sure isn’t. In accumulating detail, we hear from residents about how the closing of GM plants set in motion a horrible sequence of events for this industrial burgh. It depended heavily on GM for jobs and its significance in the scheme of things. “The plants were really the heart and soul of growth and development in Flint,” an African-American local sadly tells us, surveying one of many bleak landscapes left behind. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to that. When they started moving out, that took a toll on the city.” We get to hear all about how crucial water was for the auto industry, but the water was never the same after the industry departed. Phosphates and other pollutants accumulated in the water, and already aging pipes began deteriorating at an alarming rate. One horror after another occurs: 22 million gallons of crap poured into the main river in just two days, rising lead levels, a marked decrease in fertility for the locals (and rising fetal deaths), etcetera. GM had to shut off Flint’s water supply due to the dangerous acidity of the water and the corrosion in the pipes. And in numerous scenes from C-Span and other outlets featuring outraged officials challenging Governor Snyder among others, we get to hear about the cost-cutting measures that worsened the situation, and the attempts to sidestep accountability for how bad things kept getting. Snyder does not come off too well in this documentary. Surprise, surprise… Distinguished Democrat Elijah Cummings (who died not long after this film wrapped) is shown getting increasingly angry about the awful quagmire that enveloped Flint and he doesn’t mince words. “This is a community of people rendered invisible in a thousand ways. It’s environmental racism!”” he shouts.
The sense of futility among Flint’s residents is a thematic through-line here, though many of them keep trying to raise the issue to anyone who will listen, and a female pastor in the town is quoted frequently. We’re giving specific stats about the lead content in the water, how the water pipes had a “protective scale” that failed due to cost cutting, and the increasingly ill health suffered by residents, thought to result in perhaps 119 deaths. And if you’re not outraged enough, you get to learn about how Nestle was pumping water out of Michigan for its own profit, a development that made the news more than once. You can truly lose it watching some of this awfulness, and the film wants to make sure you get the point. Poor people (mostly of color) were the primary victims of this mess, and Snyder and other inept politicians may have thought the matter wouldn’t rise to the level of a national scandal. But they were wrong. The publicity grew so intense that steps had to be taken, although they weren’t enough. It’s important to note that Lansing, a nearby city, took preventive steps to replace similarly faulty pipes, at great expense. And we hear a sobering stat that “5300 US cities were found to have overly dangerous levels of lead in their water.” Visually we see numerous vacant landscapes, deteriorating buildings, and children in school attempting to lead normal lives, despite the impossibility. You can only feel awful at the fate of these families, and despite a few corrective measures eventually being taken, the problems remain. Talk about a bitter lesson about what can happen in America when greed and indifference hold sway over the health and needs of minorities.
This is not a fun film, but writer/director Barnhart has really put a searing indictment of the problem together, with help from skilled editor Scott Lansing. We don’t always get such an informative, powerful movie when a crisis such as this occurs. It makes you wonder about all the controversial things that go on that are simply swept under the rug or factually squelched before the media and caring officials can take action. The significance of FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY goes well beyond stirring your sympathies for some unlucky people in the industrial north. It’s an awful true-life tale of the perils of capitalism, the crucial (and often ignored) need for corporate regulation, and the way helpless communities are often victimized by cynical politicians. I doubt you’ll laugh even once watching this despairing portrait of the downside of America, but you’ll learn an awful lot. And you may hesitate even more about drinking your own tap water. To think that something as essential and basic as water could be a major problem for an entire US city, well, that’s hard to stomach.