From the March-April 2018 issue of News & Letters
Flint, a Lifetime TV original movie that aired Oct. 28, 2017, portrays four women activists—Melissa Mays, LeAnne Walters, Nayyirah Shariff and Claire—as the “steel magnolias” of the four-year ongoing battle to rectify the human disaster caused by polluted water in Flint, Michigan.
The film opens with housewife and mother LeAnne Walters trying to be heard by city officials. When Walters shares a meal with Shariff, Claire, and Mays, she cannot eat any of Shariff’s famous cooking because of her deteriorating health.
In April 2014, on orders of a Republican-appointed emergency manager attempting to cut costs, Flint began drawing its water from the Flint River. The Flint River has been the repository of 100 years of industrial pollution, mainly from General Motors automobile factories. Shortly after the switch, Flint residents complained of the smell, taste and color of their tap water, but the state government of Michigan and Flint’s emergency manager pooh-poohed complaints from the mostly poor Black population.
Queen Latifah, who is the film’s executive producer, plays a Black woman medical worker whose daughter miscarries a child she was joyfully anticipating. This family represents the widespread health complaints experienced immediately after the switch to Flint River water, well before elevated levels of lead were discovered. Large numbers of Flint residents experienced unusual rashes, allergies and miscarriages. Again, authorities ignored the complaints and vilified the complainers.
Queen Latifah’s character convinces Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, head of Pediatrics at Hurley Medical Center, to review data on lead levels in the blood of babies treated at the clinic. Dr. Hanna-Attisha finds that lead levels trended upward right after the water switch.
The state first ignores Dr. Hanna-Attisha, then tries to discredit her. The four women find that funding has “dried up” for an independent investigation, but finally convince Dr. Marc Edwards from the University of Virginia to conduct a large water sampling study. It is only when Flint’s story gains national attention that the state and city stop their campaigns against the activists.
The film brings to life the women who supported each other despite horrible health, economic and emotional consequences for themselves and their children. Though it is clear that they represent many more people than themselves, I would have liked to see the film include support from Detroit activists who connected the Flint water crisis to the mass water shutoffs in Detroit. I would have liked to see the Dakota pipeline struggle brought in and the connection Native Americans and their supporters made to water pollution and capitalism worldwide.
—Susan Van Gelder