It almost doesn’t matter if Lifetime’s “Flint,” a made-for-television movie about the water crisis in an impoverished community in Michigan, is any good or not. The fact that the film exists is the story of the film: Lifetime, a network known mostly for “Project Runway,” “UnREAL,” and its own brand of pulpy, low-budget filmmaking, taking on a water crisis so severe that the United Nations was asked to intervene.
It’s incongruous — and fascinating. After all, there is a degree to which the Flint story is one about women in peril, in a small town nearly forgotten by the rest of the world. But it’s also a complicated story about infrastructure and race, which lies outside the scope of most Lifetime films. And maybe most importantly, the Flint story is one without a neat ending: Just this week, Flint’s city council missed a deadline to find a long-term source of drinking water, and instead extended their short term solution for another two years. Meanwhile, Flint residents are using water filtration systems, but new research has indicated these filters may increase bacteria in the water, which has not eased residents’ fears. The crisis has yet to be consigned to the annals of history, but it has already been memorialized in a film produced by and starring Queen Latifah. We are living in a strange timeline.
As a film, “Flint” leaves a lot to be desired. For no good reason at all, it’s framed with superfluous voiceover. The urgency and terror of mysterious illnesses don’t quite translate to the screen, despite fine performances by leads Betsy Brandt, Marin Ireland, and Jill Scott, who play three real-life activists. Brandt’s character LeeAnne Walters is horrified at the skin rashes and mood swings displayed by her sons; Ireland’s character Melissa Mays herself becomes sick with a multitude of ailments. Latifah plays retired nurse Iza Banks in a supporting role; her daughter Adina (Lyndie Greenwood) suffers a miscarriage in the first few months of the crisis. These are awful conditions to be plagued with — and Mays, at least, reported on Tuesday that her health has, if anything, worsened. But “Flint” is written more as a success story than a chronicle of fear.
It is an intriguing if frustrating choice. On one hand, the film obscures how much work remains to be accomplished in Flint — and in its rush to didactically lay out the sequence of events, it fails to address structural inequalities at play. (Oddly, “Flint” only explores racial discrimination as an offhand joke made by the white women, about how this crisis would never happen in a majority-white town. It’s a topic that deserves more than that.) But on the other hand, “Flint” focuses on these women’s remarkable achievement: That a group of women, many of them mothers unversed in water rights and untrained in activism, found a way to bring international attention to their poisoned drinking water and negligent elected officials.
This may be why the most striking elements of “Flint” take place in the domestic sphere — in LeeAnne Walters’ kitchen, where a rotating crew of water inspectors come in and out with plastic bottles to take samples from her sink. In Nayyirah Shariff (Scott)’s living room, where four sick women gather to trade Xeroxed reports about corrosion control before one has to dart to the bathroom because she is nauseous again. At Mays’ dinner table, where her children and husband try to maintain their stoicism as her health deteriorates. In Adina’s bathroom, where a shower sprays brown water. As the lead contents in the water get higher, Walters’ sons start displaying erratic behavior; one day while she’s cooking, he shoves all of his homework off of the kitchen table in a tantrum. In a different scene, she picks up the kettle to fill it with water, and the tap runs brown. “Flint’s” writing is at times just atrocious, but these shabby-yet-neat houses are achingly real.
And when the women do find each other, the genuine solace and warmth they bring to each other is what keeps the film humming along. They believed each other before anyone else would, and those desperate threads of trust end up holding them together through health scares and the protracted wait for help. Late in the film, Walters brings a bottle of wine to celebrate, only for Shariff to decline — “I’m Muslim,” she explains. The other women had no idea. It’s been months of protesting together — showing up to council meetings and demonstrations, holding emergency confabs in grocery stores when the water bottles ran out, bringing sheafs of documents in and out of each other’s houses. An identity marker, no matter how fraught, just didn’t matter.
This is how “Flint” is astonishing. It is a template for how grassroots activism starts in our most intimate spaces — the hearth and home — and grows out of a need to provide for family and friends, out of the most basic requirements for children’s growing bodies. It shows us a movement spearheaded by a group of working-class women with no resources except each other, reaching across racial lines to share information and understanding. “Flint” is the literal embodiment of the personal becoming political — a radical praxis, on Lifetime. These are strange times, indeed.