By Jan Worth-Nelson
A community forum aiming to open up conversation around the Netflix series “Flint Town,” a searing exploration of the Flint Police Department in 2015-2016, will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Flint Public Library.
Panelists will explore what it means to create a safe community, what can be done to build trust between police and those who need them, and what it means to once again see the city portrayed as beleaguered, poverty-stricken and violent.
The eight-part series, directed by Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper and Jessica Dimmock, was released March 2. It begins at the height of the water crisis in November, 2015, just as Karen Weaver was elected mayor, and follows what happens as she fires Police Chief James Tolbert and replaces him with Tim Johnson. The drastically underfunded, understaffed police department is depicted both in the context of local and national law enforcement and political challenges, local tensions with the water crisis in the backdrop, and the personal lives of several of the struggling department’s officers.
Panelists for the forum, co-sponsored by East Village Magazine and the Flint Area Public Affairs Forum, are Flint writer and Gothic Funk Press publisher Connor Coyne; Seventh Ward Councilwoman Monica Galloway; Community Foundation of Greater Flint President and CEO Isaiah Oliver; and pastor, writer and former Flint police officer Brian Willingham.
Organizers of the “Flint Town” forum — the first time the series has been formally discussed locally since its release — hope many will come out to share what the gritty series, already drawing rave reviews elsewhere — means to the people who actually live here.
Throughout the often bloody incidents documented, Flint residents seeing the series will detect many familiar faces and locations — some painfully portrayed, as in the violence-plagued Liquor Plus market on Martin Luther King Boulevard; some endearingly happy, like the scenes of community folks dancing at the Mayor’s Ball or the police officers’ Christmas party; some hard to watch again, like Donald Trump getting schooled by Pastor Faith Timmons at Bethel United Methodist Church or Democrats mourning in shock at an election night Clinton party.
Coyne wrote a piece for Cleveland-based Belt Magazine available here about the series, in which he wrote, “The accolades for ‘Flint Town’ might surprise you if you lived here in Flint, where most residents have reacted somewhere along the spectrum from ambivalence to anger and scorn.” He continued, “Many Flint viewers — and I include myself in this number — simply feel fatigue at the return of those ever-present Flint signifiers: the abandoned house, the flashing police lights, the crack of gunfire, the dripping tap. As if these images are all that represent us and are sufficient to convey the experience of living here.”
However, Coyne said his respect for the series grew — in terms of its empathy and understanding for the real lives of the police, and in particular the shared perspectives of officers of color — and concluded, the series is “flawed, worthwhile and important.”
In a review for East Village Magazine available here, Flint movie critic Ed Bradley called the series “revelatory,” further commenting “But the real power of the series is in highlighting the grind of small-city police work and humanizing its practitioners, especially at a time in which they are under intense scrutiny.”
The LA Times dubbed the series “worthwhile,” as well as “disquieting, suspenseful, informative in a human more than a statistical way, often eloquent, basically balanced and occasionally adorable.”
Willingham, who appears in several of the episodes, was cited by the LA Times as “the series’ most eloquent voice on race.” His November, 2016 Op-Ed in the New York Times, focused on reason for hope, concluding,
“In the end, the burden placed on urban police is that they have the power to either tear a city apart or help hold it together. With all that Flint has been through, I believe it still stands today because of its Police Department.”
The documentary filmmakers, who came back to Flint a second time after making “T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold” about Claressa Shields, delve into the lives of several of the principals, including Bridgette Balasko and Robert Frost, two officers who are also a couple, and Dion Reed, a new trainee with a fiancee, a child, and another on the way. The portrayals are complex and poignantly rendered, with almost all the participants remarkably vulnerable and open.
Flint also looks beautiful in the series. The LA Times critic wrote:
” ‘Flint Town’ has the expensive look of theatrical fictional filmmaking; it glories in winter snow and summer green. Holidays come and go: Christmas, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Christmas again. There are artful shots of the moon through clouds and fireflies in a yard, of goldfish, a dog’s eyes, even a coffee maker making coffee. Its prettiness usefully reminds the viewer that there is more to Flint than crime. In other respects, it is a little too gorgeous for its own good, aestheticizing crime scene tape, blood splatter, shell casings, abandoned houses, the hand of a corpse in the snow. Similarly, it goes from scenes of patient observation to those that indulge in the stylistic tics of cop shows. The filmmaking sometimes gets in the way of the film.”
Netflix has granted permission for use of several excerpts from the series for the forum, though time will allow only about 15 minutes total as samples of key moments. While seeing the approximately 320-minute series would enrich forum attendees’ participation in the event, organizers assert it’s not necessary to have seen all episodes to appreciate the Tuesday discussion.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.