‘Flint: The Poisoning of an American City’ gives voice to victims
Water distribution employee Albrey Kirkland places water cases into the back of a pickup at a water distribution center on North Franklin Avenue, April 5, 2018 in Flint, Mich. | AP

The residents of Flint, Michigan, have been fighting for clean water and justice since 2014. Five years and counting since the water crisis there made national news and many residents are still without access to safe water. Since that time it has been discovered that Flint is not an anomaly, as cities across the nation have been discovered to have unsafe drinking water. While government negligence and corruption has often been highlighted, a new documentary exposes the crisis from a different angle. Flint: The Poisoning of an American City connects labor history, environmental disaster, and the lost voice of a community to tell a layered story of how a once-prosperous area fell into despair.

Directed by David Barnhart (Trigger: The Ripple Effects of Gun Violence) and edited by Scott Lansing (Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury), the documentary was five years in the making and traces the timeline of the city’s interaction with the Flint River – from the continued abuse and neglect of both city infrastructure and environmental regulations, to population decline, through to Michigan’s 2013 appointing of outside emergency managers. Flint: The Poisoning of an American City starts from the bustling post World War II era that was full of hope for the good life from General Motors, and ends in the present state of the city that has problems that go beyond unsafe drinking water.

While interspersing testimonies from current residents with labor history and scientific data on the dangers of lead- filled water, the movie has a question it wants answered: How could what happened to Flint happen in America, which touts itself as one of the most prosperous countries in the world? Throughout the movie the audience is made to understand that there is no simple answer to this question but a layered one steeped in systemic greed, neglect, and racism. Since it is the first full-length feature on the Flint water crisis the project has the heavy task of gathering all of the details of the disaster into a cohesive story.

Often when hearing about the water crisis the story begins with former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s aim to save government money, after giving large tax breaks to the rich, by switching the water supply of the predominantly working class area to a river that lacked proper corrosion control treatment. Flint: The Poisoning of an American City makes it clear that this is not the beginning of the city’s story. Through archived footage dating back to the post World War II era viewers are treated to a history lesson not often explored regarding Flint. We are informed that the picture we see of Flint now – one of poverty, sickness, and unemployment – is in stark contrast to the booming city it once was.

What many might not know is that in the early twentieth century Flint quickly became an auto-centralized city. From the Buick Motor Company to General Motors, Flint’s history has been dominated by the auto industry. The Flint workers sit-down strike against General Motors in 1936 and 1937 changed the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from a collection of isolated locals into a major labor union, while leading to the unionization of the domestic United States automobile industry. Workers in Flint not only depended on the stability of the auto industry in the city for financial security, but fought for just wages. It was also a city where people of many different racial backgrounds came for work, putting Flint on the frontlines of racially integrated work forces. Yet, this industrial boom came at a price to the environment – something the documentary dives into.

This is a necessary starting point for the film, because although the news reports that Snyder’s administration switched the water supply back to the Flint River, it is not often explained why this was an ill-advised idea from the very beginning given how the river came to be so unsafe. Placing the crisis in a historical context makes it more tangible and not some out-of-nowhere unexplainable phenomenon that just is.

Coupled with this historical contextualization is the voice of a community that has frequently been silenced in this entire ordeal. One of the best aspects of the documentary is the way in which it allows the residents of Flint to tell their story. The audience is allowed to see individual cases that have resulted from the health scare, the way in which the community was shut out of the decision-making process regarding their drinking water, and the work being done in fighting for a better future.

We are shown that access to clean drinking water is not the cause of the problems the community faces but one of the results of a community, predominantly working class and people of color, being overlooked for profit. It’s heartbreaking to witness the lasting troubles they face, but inspiring to know that community activists, organizers, and concerned citizens are refusing to be silenced. Hearing from residents such as social worker Lisa Horne and Pastor Rev. Desiree Lawson allows a first-hand account of what is being dealt with. The film gives them the platform to give testimony on a large scale beyond sensationalized news clips.

Pipe affected by unsafe drinking water/ Barnhart Films

Finally the film takes several moments throughout to pause and scientifically explain just how dangerous high levels of lead in the drinking water can be. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause irreversible brain damage when accumulated in the body. Hearing phrases like “water crisis” and “unsafe drinking water” over and over can begin to the phrases meaningless, obscuring just how deadly the situation is. Even if the pipes and infrastructure are fixed, long lasting damage has already occurred, specifically to the future generation. The film makes clear that high levels of lead bring irreversible damage to children who have been exposed. Flint has seen first-hand the damage done to the children.

Flint: The Poisoning of an American City is a thorough documentary that takes on the task of  telling a vast story cohesively and succeeds in doing so. It serves as a way for those not as familiar with the problems of Flint to be educated, and is a great resource for those advocating for change. The facts and figures cited within it are invaluable. This is not a film to watch and keep to oneself, but one to share with others. That’s because Flint is happening all over this country.

Recent studies have shown that from 1982 to 2015 millions of people in the United States got their drinking water from a source that violated the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Couple this with various former company towns of people left behind when their main source of employment ups and leaves, and you have various ways in which millions are faced with hardship. The documentary doesn’t give solutions to these problems, but it does provide a solid base of information from which to begin to make strategic and informed future decisions.

Flint: The Poisoning of an American City is currently on a multi-city theatrical tour. A listing of future screenings can be found here.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.