Sunday, October 29, 2017

Flint (Sony Pictures Television/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s “Premiere” of one of the best and strongest movies I’ve ever seen on Lifetime, Flint, one of their rare excursions into socially conscious drama (along with Custody — which they re-ran right after Flint and was a quite good political film about the legal system and how it handles cases of suspected child abuse, and particularly how much harder the authorities are on people of color accused of abusing or neglecting their kids than they are on whites — For the Love of a Child, Prayers for Bobby, A Girl Like Me and the quite remarkably class-conscious Restless Virgins). Flint also has considerably more prestigious credits than usual for a Lifetime movie: the director is Bruce Beresford, who was part of the late 1970’s/early 1980’s Australian breakout with Breaker Morant and directed Driving Miss Daisy, and the stars include two of the greatest African-American soul singers of the day, Queen Latifah and Jill Scott, as well as white actor Rob Morrow. As you might expect, the film is about the water crisis at Flint, Michigan that started in 2014 when Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan, passed a bill through the Republican state legislature that allowed for the state to suspend democracy in cities that were in financial trouble and appoint “emergency managers” with dictatorial power over local governments. Flint’s emergency manager decided that one of the ways he would cut the city’s budget was to break its contract with Detroit’s municipal water utility, which got its water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River, and instead get Flint’s water from the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).

However, using KWA water would require constructing an elaborate pipeline to get it to Flint, so in the meantime Flint’s manager decided the city would get its water from the Flint River, even though for decades the Flint River had been the dumping ground for industrial pollutants from the huge auto factories located there. (Remember that before the water crisis the two things Flint was most famous for were the sit-down strike of GM’s auto workers in 1936-37 that ultimately led to the recognition of the United Auto Workers, and the bitterly satirical film Roger and Me made by Michael Moore in 1989 about what happened to Flint economically and culturally when GM closed that famous plant.) The film Flint opens with a bizarre celebration at the Flint water plant in which the staff seem all too happy about the changeover to Flint River Water — and then we start meeting the principals. Iza Banks (Queen Latifah) is a mother who gets concerned when her daughter Adina (Lyndie Greenwood) has a miscarriage just a week or two after her last pre-natal examination said her baby was coming along just fine. LeeAnne Walters (a finely honed performance by Betsy Brandt) is a housewife and mother who’s alerted to the water crisis when her kids smell what’s now coming out of their taps and say it seems spoil. “Water doesn’t spoil,” LeeAnne innocently tells her family, until one of her kids starts acting out, having temper tantrums and smashing his toys, while another starts developing rashes and losing his hair in clumps. Melissa Mays (Marin Ireland) is a local organizer who starts researching water contamination online, and Nayyariah Sharif (Jill Scott) is a local pediatrician who’s alerted to the problem when a nurse on her staff steals medical records that indicate a lot of the kids they see are having problems that indicate some sort of toxic contamination of their environment. The four unlikely activists attend a meeting of the Flint City Council, where they’re treated like hysterical cranks — one city official even accuses them of putting teabags in their water samples to make the city’s water look brown — until they finally attract the attention of some experts who verify what’s happening. One of the bureaucratic heroes is Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigator Miguel Del Toral (Juan Carlos Velis), who does his own tests confirming high levels of lead in Flint’s water. The lead comes from the industrial pollutants in the Flint River and also from the ancient pipes installed in Flint’s houses, particularly the older ones, which are made of lead and which cross-react with the industrial pollutants to release lead into the water.

The residents of Flint start getting a series of “advisories” from the local water department, first telling them to boil all water to eliminate E. coli and other bacterial contaminants, later realizing that all that did was concentrate the lead — as LeeAnne bitterly comments in one scene, the Flint water department was giving them the choice of either letting their kids get sick (and possibly die) from bacteria or letting them get poisoned, permanently disabled and with their brains damaged, from the lead that would concentrate in the water if they boiled it first. The results include a run on the market on bottled water in Flint, with resulting price-gouging and uncertain supplies (in one scene one of Our Heroines chews out a store manager for not stocking more bottled water), as well as increasing public pressure on the Flint mayor and council. In one sequence the Flint city council actually votes 7-1 to reconnect their water system to Detroit’s so they can start getting the relatively pure water from Lake Huron instead of the crap coming out of the Flint River, but the emergency manager smarmily vetoes the move with a patronizing little lecture to the people Flint’s voters actually elected that they need to start learning to live within their means (not that different from what the people of Puerto Rico are getting from the Trump administration and Congress these days). Ultimately the Flint activists start showing up at protests wearing signs saying “Flint Lives Matter” — a parallel to the Black Lives Matter slogan which I think is actually historically anachronistic, since the Flint water crisis began before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that touched off the Black Lives Matter movement — and they also get the attention of America’s most highly regarded scientific specialist in water pollution, Professor Edwards of the University of Virginia (Rob Morrow). Edwards says that in order to get a measure of just how bad Flint’s water is, he’ll need to send out 300 test kits to residents in various parts of town, and while he’s been able to get an emergency grant to do the actual lab work he doesn’t have any funding to pay people to collect the kids.

Don’t worry, says Iza; she’ll recruit the volunteers, which she does through the local Black church — and in the end 271 of the 300 kits come back, which Edwards declares an umprecedentedly good response rate (usually you have to send 300 kits to get back just 70), and Edwards presents his report, which basically confirms the growing suspicion of Flint residents that they’re essentially being pumped toxic waste that’s called “drinking water” and not only drinking and cooking but bathing their kids and doing laundry in it. Another thing the activists discover is that the Flint water department has not been treating the water with so-called “corrosion controls,” basically chemical treatments that neutralize chemicals in the water that might corrode the pipes and release toxic metallic lead. Flint’s water department hadn’t used corrosion controls before because the Detroit water department from which they had historically bought their water was already doing that for them, and they didn’t institute corrosion controls when they switched from Detroit’s supply to Flint River water. Eventually the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) gets involved and files suit against the city of Flint, the state government and the EPA, and the film builds up to a happy-ending climax when Flint resumes purchasing its water from Lake Huron via the Detroit system. (It’s kind of ironic that this film holds up Detroit as an example of a city that did something right, given how prominently Detroit has figured in Right-wing demonology of what terrible things supposedly happen when you put progressive Democrats, especially African-American progressive Democrats, in charge of a major city.) Flint is a little too close to the Frank Capra template for my taste — it’s pretty obvious that Beresford and his writer, Barbara Stepansky, were looking at Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich as their templates for how to do a courageous-woman-stands-up-to-corporate-and-political-bureaucracy movie, and those films were themselves modern-day refractions of the Capra mythos — and there’s the sense that they’re trying to shoehorn a horribly open-ended story into a coherently structured story by using the devices of Old Hollywood.

But so what? Flint is a great movie, all the more surprising given its appearance on Lifetime (of all places); it not only has the right heroines but the right villains as well — the film really sticks it to the government of Michigan and in particular to the “emergency manager” Michigan’s governor put in charge of Flint (actually there were four “emergency managers” over a course of three years, from 2011 to 2014, and the one in the film is basically a conflation of the last two) on the idea that a city of poor people, especially poor people of color, can’t responsibly govern themselves and a white male expert has to be brought in to save money, no matter how many people die or get avoidably sick in the process. Flint would be a good educational movie for anyone concerned about the current direction of the country, since it, like the real-life story it is based on, is a cautionary tale of what happens when you let Republicans run things. You get an extreme Libertarian ideology that believes it’s not only bad public policy but actually morally wrong for the government to tax the rich to pay for programs that help the not-so-rich, and also believes that everything should be a commodity. According to the economic Libertarians currently dominating the Republican Party, even programs and infrastructure previously considered basic human needs it was the obligation of government to supply to all citizens should instead be commodities, available or not depending on whether you can afford to pay for them. The Flint crisis literally made water a commodity — if you’d paid recently to have your old lead pipes replaced with plastic, you got fewer (not zero, but at least fewer) contaminants in your water; and of course the toxicity of Flint’s water meant that Flint residents (“Flintstones,” they jokingly call themselves in the film) had to buy massive amounts of bottled water. Cher, who’s listed as one of the co-producers of the film and was planning to be in it (probably playing Nayyariah Sharif’s boss, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, though that’s just my guess because the actress in the role, Sonia Dhillon Tully, looks quite a lot like Cher) until she had to drop out because her mother got seriously ill, actually paid for large amounts of bottled water and had it shipped into Flint at the height of the crisis.

Indeed, though the “happy” ending of the film occurs with the Flint city council voting to reconnect to the Detroit water system (and the “emergency manager” reluctantly going along with it), as of March 2017 the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) was still recommending that families use bottled water for at least some of their needs. The Flint crisis also meant the city and state had to spend millions of dollars — far more, of course, than it would have cost them to stay on the Detroit water system in the first place — to replace corroded lead pipes that are still releasing lead into the water even though MDEQ tests indicate that Flint’s water is within legal limits for lead content when it’s pumped from reservoirs into people’s homes. Flint is an example of the entire attitude modern-day Republican politicians take towards environmental crises, especially environmental crises that predominantly affect poor people and people of color; though the Democrats aren’t entirely blameless on these matters, it’s the Republicans who have made essentially a crusade out of attacking the environment. When President Trump defends himself against the charge that he’s done virtually nothing in his first year in office, the items he cites that he has accomplished include not only getting Right-winger Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court and pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “trade” treaty, but at least four direct assaults on the environment: pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate-change agreement (as loose as that was), canceling President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and allowing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines to be built. (For all my alt-Left readers who still, in the face of all reason and hard evidence, insist that “there’s no difference” between the Republican and Democratic parties, these are all issues on which President Hillary Clinton would have made the exact opposite decisions.)

What’s more, the situation in Puerto Rico — where U.S. citizens were left without electrical power for over a month on end and, when the government finally decided to do something about that, they gave a $300 million sweetheart contract to a company called Whitefish Energy with only two full-time permanent employees because the company is based in Whitefish, Montana, home of Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, and Zinke’s son once worked a summer job for Whitefish Energy — is essentially Flint all over again, only worse. Once again a disaster has left a whole lot of poor people, most of them people of color, without access to food, water, electricity or an infrastructure capable of delivering those, and once again instead of the help they need they’re getting patronizing gestures (remember Trump going to Puerto Rico and throwing rolls of paper towels at people, like it was feeding time for the animals at the zoo?) and lectures about how they need to “live within their means.” (Like Flint, Puerto Rico was already in economic crisis before their disaster happened, and the island’s government was under the administration of a junta of bankers and financial people who had veto power over the democratically elected island officials — and used it to impose austerity measures on the island that, like similar measures in the Third World and European countries like Greece, far from facilitating economic development actually work to choke it off as the source.) Flint is a vivid cautionary tale of the real-world implications of Libertarian economics and an indictment of the whole idea that people are only entitled to the necessities of life to the extent that they are able and willing to pay for them — an idea that, after the outcome of America’s last four elections, has become the ruling principle of this country’s national government (and most of its state governments as well) and will remain so until the American people come to their senses and stop electing Republicans to anything.