Flint: The Poisoning of an American City

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Flint: The Poisoning of an American City Movie Poster Image
Toxic water supply devastates Michigan city in earnest docu.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 85 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Addresses vulnerability of America's working class in a changing economy. Promotes activism. Creates awareness of environmental racism -- in this case, government's failure to act because of makeup of population at risk.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Interviewees are engaged citizens trying to affect change. State government is portrayed as indifferent and incompetent.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Flint: The Poisoning of an American City is a documentary that tracks events leading up to and following the Flint River's contamination of a city's water supply, and the inaction of government authorities to respond to the crisis. From the 1940s and 1950s, when Flint, Michigan, was a thriving working-class community, through the departure of the automobile industry, which was its lifeblood, to its currently failing infrastructure, the city's decline is a cautionary tale. The most callous and shocking decision -- switching Flint's water supply from Detroit's water system (sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River) to the Flint River -- is highly controversial. This film backs up previous claims that socioeconomic status and deep-seated racial bias were at the root of that decision. Straightforward and informative, this documentary is best for mature teens. 

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What's the story?

In FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY, it's all about the water and corruption. Filmmaker David Barnhart uses upbeat newsreel footage from the past to show the formerly bustling, progressive city that was Flint, Michigan, during its most productive decades. Since that time, globalization, changes in American automobile manufacturing, and governmental misdeeds have made the city of Flint basically uninhabitable. Especially affected are the city's children. In dealing with the present crisis, he interviews activists and affected citizens, includes live governmental hearings, and shows film of the natural environment to make a case for the despairing and sickly residents of the city. 

Is it any good?

Informing the public about the victimization of an entire city is an invaluable contribution, and in this well-made, thoughtful documentary David Barnhart takes the opportunity seriously. It's hard not to be angered at what Barnhart discloses. Ignoring lead content in drinking water that's unequivocally known to cause brain damage in kids is criminal. Standing by while residents of all ages become ill from a wide variety of diseases (including cancer) is shameful. 

Perhaps the most cynical revelation is that throughout this water calamity, Flint's residents have been regularly charged high prices for the water they cannot use. Then, when the bills go unpaid, they'll be held accountable and lose the houses for which there's no market. Flint: The Poisoning of an American City is not flashy, cutting-edge filmmaking. It's an old-school documentary -- just the facts, the faces, and the fire. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the intentions of documentaries: to inform, entertain, persuade, or inspire. Which category or categories best describe Flint: The Poisoning of an American City? Why? Do you think that filmmaker David Barnhart has a specific viewpoint about what happened in Flint? If so, what is that view?

  • Some environmental disasters are a result of nature (e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes). Some are human-made (e.g., decimated animal populations, many forest fires). Why is it becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between natural and human-made catastrophes? 

  • Documentaries are valuable for getting information and messages to widespread audiences. Did you know about what happened in Flint, Michigan, before you saw this movie? In what ways, if any, did the film persuade you to be engaged in your community and the world beyond? What other documentaries have inspired you?

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