The story of Flint, Michigan, begins long before the lead-tainted water crisis that threw the city into a national spotlight in 2015. And it’ll continue long after the ongoing crisis ends.
That’s the premise of the new Netflix docuseries Flint Town coming out Friday. The eight-episode show has little to do with the water crisis that left the predominantly black city of nearly 100,000 exposed to lead poisoning—yet, at the same time, it has everything to do with it. And it’s necessary viewing for anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist or ally to the environmental justice movement, in particular.
The cinematic show follows the actual Flint Police Department, an underfunded public service agency (like most others in the city), from 2015 to 2017. The riveting high-speed ride-alongs—which include calls to murder scenes or drug busts—give the viewer an exclusive look into the world of policing and, more importantly, the humans who make it up.
A handful of the 98 officers who make up the police department—the smallest number of officers to police any city of a comparable size in the United States—afford directors Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper, and Jessica Dimmock an intimate view of their lives. This story steps away from the one-dimensional view of law enforcement we’ve all become accustomed to seeing in TV dramas and media coverage, offering something real and raw.
So what’s any of this got to do with the environment?
The docuseries shows—quite incredibly—how an environmental crisis like Flint’s exacerbates already perilous situations in communities home to people of color and low-income families. Things were bad in Flint long before its water wasn’t drinkable: Poverty has overwhelmed the community since 2000 when General Motors closed its car factory. And as Flint Town makes painfully clear, crime is everywhere.
Ultimately, this series shows us that environmental crises are never the only issue with which vulnerable communities have to deal. Years and sometimes decades of social ills compound to create the structure that allows these kinds of catastrophes to happen in the first place. The docuseries provides the important context to understand the ripple effects contaminated water had on the city and its residents. Residents no longer trusted anyone, including the police department. After all, city officials knew lead was in the water and failed to do anything for months and months.
Officers are forced to police under a veil of distrust while grappling with the ways the water crisis has impacted them, too. “There are a lot of officers living in Flint,” said director Jessica Dimmock to Earther. “At the end of the day, they come into the station. They can’t drink the water there. They’re surrounded by water bottles. [The water crisis] is never far from their minds.”
Water bottles are always lingering in the background of this Netflix show. “That was intentional and also unavoidable,” said Dummock. “Once your eyes become aware of it, you see [bottles] everywhere.” It can be as subtle as a plastic water bottle near the kitchen sink or as clear as the packages and packages of water bottles sitting in the Flint Police Department.
Flint Town not only offers stunning visuals, but it offers a real glimpse of what it’s like to live and serve this community, challenging the stereotypical narrative around environmental justice. The movement was born out of a North Carolina black community fighting for the right to clean roadways. Today, it can mean a lot more.
Some scholars have been challenging what we define as our “environment.” Is it just the air we breathe? Or can it also include the stressful environment in which a person lives when police don’t arrive at an emergency, or when a mother is worried about making the water pick-up deadline after working a 12-hour shift?
“All those environmental factors contribute and play off of one another,” said director Drea Cooper to Earther. “You definitely see some of that through the series.”
So though this show isn’t about the Flint water crisis, I urge you to watch it. It’s no Planet Earth or scientific exposé of how lead leaches into waterways. It’s an honest attempt to tell the story of a city and a group of people who refuse to give up on it.