Tuned Out: Recent Documentary on Flint Water Crisis Falls Flat with Flint Residents

The latest film on the Flint water crisis is making headlines, but in Flint, people have had their own story told to them enough.
Photo credit: iStock/Linda Parton

Nayyirah Shariff was half an hour late to Flint: Who Can You Trust?, a documentary chronicling the Flint water crisis, when it premiered in the Flint area in May. A new variant of COVID-19 was on the loose, and after two years living as a “hermit,” they were hesitant to leave the house. But as a local water rights activist and being prominently featured in the film, they figured they ought to go.

Four months later, they still haven’t bothered to go back and watch those first 30 minutes.

“It was somewhat traumatic, reliving some of that stuff,” Shariff says of watching the film.

They’re not alone in their hesitancy to finish the film — or watch it at all. There were only between 20 and 30 people at the local showing, Shariff says, and a handful, like Shariff, were in the movie. I spent a day wandering around Flint to hear residents’ thoughts on it, but except for Shariff — even after a couple of social media posts — I couldn’t find anyone who’d seen it.

Narrated by Alec Baldwin, Flint was created by British filmmaker Anthony Baxter, who offers a fairly comprehensive overview of the water crisis’s many facets. The movie has received widespread attention and mixed but ultimately positive reviews. But in Flint, the reaction appears to be neither positive nor negative: It’s all but nonexistent.

I went to my favorite coffee spot in Flint, The Good Beans Cafe, but no one I spoke to there had seen it either — not the professor from the local university or the editor of a local magazine. I sat with my friend, Patty Warner, a longtime Flint resident who was there with a pal from a nearby suburb. He wanted to know, was the water crisis over?

The answer, of course, is no, and not only because of the most recent announcement, as of press time, in the water crisis saga — that a Michigan Supreme Court ruling is sending all prosecutions against former Gov. Rick Snyder and other high-ranking officials back to square one, dragging on an already lengthy process.

Shariff, still exhausted from the crisis (they had lost their ability to yell, they say, from complications from the water), says one question that continues to haunt them, and that they cannot answer, is, “What does justice look like?”

It’s a good question. Even if or when the trial restarts, and even if a former governor and his underlings see jail time, what would that mean for the people of Flint? Even with a possible sense of closure, other difficult truths remain. Some residents are still waiting for their lead service lines to be replaced. Flint children will live with lead in their bodies for decades. The dead aren’t coming back.

Even if you could throw everyone in jail, and even if you could take a magical syringe and suck every bit of lead out of every body in Flint, Michigan, the mental and emotional toll — and, as the name of Baxter’s film implies, a severe lack of trust — would remain.

Patty has had her pipes replaced and filters installed. She still drinks bottled water. It’s all she’ll give her dogs.

“It’s just become a way of life,” she says. Patty hasn’t seen the movie either. She’d been curious but after we spoke said she probably wouldn’t bother.

The film, while expansive, is not without problems. It reinforces the falsehood that the Flint River itself, rather than officials’ failure to treat the water, caused lead to seep into the system, and the latter half focuses almost exclusively on the beef between two water researchers (one legit, one not) while largely ignoring the role of city and state officials (not to mention, as Shariff notes, the predominantly Black population that was affected).

Baldwin’s sudden appearance at the end of the film, taking him from narrator to participant, is also a bit jarring.

Whether it’s good or bad or traumatic seems to have little to do with Flint’s apparent lack of interest. It likely stems instead from an exhaustion by the negative — even if often true — attention the city has received for decades, arguably starting with Michael Moore’s debut film, Roger & Me, about Flint’s postindustrial decline.

In 2011, a New York Times Magazine article referred to Flint as “Murdertown USA,” stirring plenty of ire but perhaps not as much as when a startup news site called Flint “America’s Most Apocalyptic, Violent City” and included photos from the Middle East. Flint has made “most dangerous” and “most miserable” lists. There was Flint Town, the Netflix docuseries about Flint police. Even Queen Latifah starred in a Lifetime film about the water crisis.

For the world outside Flint, such stories may serve as a necessary reminder of what can happen in our neglected cities. In Flint, though, making the national stage for horrific truths and frustrating falsehoods stopped being a big deal a long time ago. Now it’s just normal, like drinking water from a plastic bottle.

This story is from the September 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition