It’s an itch at the dinner table, then a rash on the arm. It’s the loss of feeling in the fingertips that blooms into a grand mal seizure. It’s an unpleasant scent in the nose, a rancid taste in the mouth, a puddle of black, brackish water pooling in the bathtub. And that’s just the beginning: The symptoms come on silently, without warning, but soon their spread seems uncontrollable; before long, an American city is engulfed by a worsening plague, by cirrhosis, Legionnaire’s disease, deformed fetuses, fear, the last of these made worse by the epidemic’s unexplained nature. Absent the secure laboratories and biocontainment suits of Contagion or Outbreak, Lifetime’s latest nonetheless uses elements of the genre to infuse a forgotten crisis with an urgent thrum.
Flint is a disaster movie, and that’s exactly as it should be.
The foreboding glimpses of slimy, grey, trash-strewn water in the film’s opening sequence offer the first clue, as does narrator Nayyirah Shariff’s (Jill Scott) admission that this is “not the whole story.” From the start, Flint, based on Time reporter Josh Sanburn’s “The Toxic Tap,” acknowledges its particular perspective, which screenwriter Barbara Stepansky and director Bruce Beresford turn into an asset: Though the film’s setting suggests Show Me a Hero, and its premise Erin Brockovich, the disaster movie is in its bones. The forces that turn its disparate main characters into a band of survivors, for instance, reminded me most of the genre’s 1970s classics, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, or perhaps Airport and Earthquake. It positions Nayyirah, a longtime activist; LeeAnne Walters (Betsy Brandt), a stay-at-home mom; Melissa Mays (Marin Ireland), a radio DJ; and mother-daughter duo Iza and Adina Banks (Queen Latifah and Lyndie Greenwood) as passing strangers—Nayyirah and LeeAnne nod to each other at an intersection in the early stages, then (literally) go their separate ways—only to throw them together in the midst of catastrophe. In the troubled waters of a humanitarian disaster, they must sink alone or swim together.
(Relatively) briefly: In 2014, three years after the state of Michigan assumed control of the city’s finances following decades of economic decline, Flint switched water sources, from Lake Huron—the same source as Detroit—to the Flint River, as part of a plan to reduce costs. (The city’s water fund alone was $9 million in the red, according to this useful primer from CNN.) The problem, as we learn in Flint, is that water from the Flint River, long a dumping ground for runoff from the General Motors complex that sustained the city in its halcyon days, is far more corrosive than water from Lake Huron—which can cause lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply. Usually, this is prevented by the application of a chemical coating known as “corrosion control” on the inside of the pipes, which the powers that be, in their lust for austerity, decided was unnecessary. Predictably, lead leached into Flint’s water supply, in levels that qualified that water supply as toxic waste. Flint depicts citizens as Contagion does epidemiologists: as heroes working to determine the cause of, and find a solution to, a public health nightmare.
(Very) briefly: State and local officials mass-poisoned the residents of Flint in order to save money. Flint depicts this as the horrifying disaster that it is.
That one can glean most of these details from a 90-minute Lifetime movie is reason enough to recommend it, at least as a starting point; so, too, are Nayyirah’s nods to its tangle of historical, institutional and political antecedents—namely, the structural racism and classism that feed urban neglect, which is “then glossed as “decline as though it were inevitable, and inexorable. There are even allusions to the fact that people of color, black women especially, are on the front lines fighting for their communities long before calamity strikes, including a tart joke that the problem must be intransigent if elected officials won’t listen to white women: “I’m usually at the bullhorn on my own,” Nayyirah says at one point. “It gets a bit lonely.” Add in the actions of Flint’s then-mayor, Dayne Walling, and governor-appointed emergency manager Jerry Ambrose, whose responses to the crisis are so gutless, villainous, and frankly criminal they resist fictionalization, and Flint evolves, by degrees, until the disaster at hand is one of mismanagement and malfeasance as much as it is environmental or medical. (For the record: Walling did, in fact, stage a public appearance in which he drank tap water in order to ensure residents, erroneously, that the supply was safe; Ambrose did, in fact, use his authority as emergency manger to overrule a city council vote to switch back to the Detroit-Lake Huron water system, calling it “incomprehensible.”)
As with most disaster movies, the characters are rather thinly drawn (Latifah in particular is underutilized); the film’s occasional attempts at interpersonal drama, such as a subplot about Adina’s ne’er-do-well boyfriend, are clumsily handed and/or quickly tossed away. But when it pulls back to the bigger picture, to the towering inferno and the sinking ship, Flint is a refreshingly angry, frustrated, worn-down-to-the-nub portrait of a man-made disaster and the work of women to counteract its consequences. (To wit, at multiple points in the film, gatekeepers take swipes at menstruating women, “soccer moms” and “housewives,” the latter producing a Jill Scott Shocked Face that should be on U.S. currency.) By the time it reaches the distribution of water testing kits—the equivalent, to complete the conceit, of the long lines for vaccination—Flint recalls the era in which the TV movie still held an important place in the public square, approaching subjects fresh from the nightly news with sincere, if sometimes didactic, fervor.
In doing so through the lens of the disaster movie, Flint animates the ongoing failure in Flint—the replacement of the city’s 20,000 corroded, tainted pipes is not set to be completed until 2020, and the public health effects are sure to be felt for decades—as popular culture so often does the disasters that might confront those of us rich enough, or white enough, to treat access to potable water as a non-issue. Because the crisis in Flint continues to be as serious as the spread of a virus, and as preventable as the fire in the building that doesn’t come up to code, or the shipwreck in the field of icebergs. Even very late in the film there’s a biting sense of horror, rage, almost resignation at the fact that you can fight City Hall, but that the best you can hope for is a kind of Pyrrhic victory. It’s this that cuts through the flimsy optimism of the final scene, and that denies the characters and their city a wholly happy ending.
Flint is a disaster movie, and the disaster rolls on.
Flint airs Saturday, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.