By Connor Coyne
If you had asked me a few weeks ago what the words “Flint Town” meant to me, I would have happily told you about the song, “Flint Town,” from the 1993 debut album of Flint rap trio The Dayton Family. I can’t recall all of the times over the years that followed when I’d be at some party in some Flinty basement and everyone would set their cups down to chant:
“Flint is dominated, but never imitated. The others perpetrate it, but still we regulate it.”
In the last few weeks, the words “Flint Town” have come to mean something entirely different to me. At the beginning of March, Netflix dropped all eight episodes of its original docu-drama “Flint Town.” The show is the culmination of two years of work during which the crew embedded itself deep in the Flint Police Department, filming cadets as they trained, seasoned officers as they answered homicide and arson calls, and seemingly everyone as they went back home at twilight (morning or night, it was hard to tell) to the gurgle of a four-cup coffee pot. The crux of this series is the struggle of the Flint Police Department to cover the whole city in the midst of funding and resource shortfalls — there are just 98 officers serving Flint’s approximately 100,000 residents.
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.
The critics seem to be enjoying “Flint Town” so far; a week after its release, it had earned a 93-percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, including props from The Guardian, Vulture, and Adam Graham from The Detroit News. Netflix viewers seem to be enjoying the show as well, giving it an average score of 4.6 out of 5 stars.
These accolades might surprise you if you lived here in Flint. Scanning Facebook and Twitter, listening to the chatter at the gas station or Meijer’s, or reading Mayor Karen Weaver’s and Police Chief Timothy Johnson’s statement on the show — “We know this series does not tell the whole story. It does not focus on the amazing turn around and recovery that is starting to happen in the city” — most residents have reacted somewhere along the spectrum from ambivalence to anger and scorn.
Flintstones have a number of problems with the documentary. Many of us are outraged that a woman whose son’s homicide investigation was filmed was not informed of its inclusion, and was justifiably upset when she made this discovery while watching the first episode. Business owners and residents of middle-class enclaves lament the bleak and claustrophobic images of decay that saturate “Flint Town.” Many activists accuse the show of abetting police militarization and engaging in poverty porn while it neglects the efforts of everyday citizens to make their city a better, safer place. 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.
And yet, I found my respect for the show increasing the longer I watched.
For starters, if “Flint Town” is guilty of tedious and repetitive ruin porn, it also shows the beauty of the city in a way that outsiders commonly neglect. Without decamping to wealthier neighborhoods (the stock tactic for exhibiting “what’s good” in cities like Flint), the cameras capture the breathless hush of snow falling against a pale street light, or fingers of lightning that dwarf the largest buildings, or blooms of fireworks shimmering overhead when viewers anxiously expect gunfire. These are the images I connect with beauty in my hometown, and I have seldom seen them communicated so well by anyone who isn’t from here.
Many Flint viewers 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.
More importantly, the creators could not have picked a more timely moment to tell the story of an American police department. Filming, which ran from late 2015 through the end of 2016, took in the killing of Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer, the massacre of police officers in Dallas, and the continuing emergence of #BlackLivesMatter. Indeed, we see officers’ reaction to both the Castile shooting and Dallas. Because “Flint Town” builds empathy and understanding toward the officers it follows, it is all the more jarring when one describes Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, as “callous” for documenting the shooting death of her boyfriend with a smartphone. The unsympathetic responses of the — typically white — officers to the shooting of unarmed African Americans contrasts starkly with the outpouring of emotion that follows the events in Dallas.
The producers seem to be mindful of providing a balanced account when they interview a number of Flint residents, many expressing highly critical views of the police. “I have a son,” says a young black mother, “and it makes me emotional, because, you know, it makes me afraid for him to grow up.” “If the police tell me to shut up,” a young black man says, “I’m not gonna think about what my rights are. I’m gonna shut up.” “How can you trust the police?” asks an older black man. “If you see this on TV, you see this online or whatever you see, I mean … how can you trust the police these days?”
And yet, the show cannot claim true impartiality in these debates because its premise required giving the police the larger platform, more opportunity to express their positions, to come into their homes and witness their personal struggles and triumphs … an accommodation which is not made for the other Flint citizens quoted above as “young black mother,” “young black man,” and “older black man” because “Flint Town” never provides us with their names.
On the other hand, the show benefits hugely from the shared perspective of its officers of color. Largely neglected in the problematic opener, which focuses almost exclusively on white officers, subsequent episodes introduce us to Dion and Maria Reed, a mother and son going through training together, and seasoned officers Brian Willingham and Scott Watson, who as African Americans working for the police in a majority African-American city are able to express a perspective on their work that seems to elude both the civilians they serve and their white colleagues.
“How,” asks Willingham, “can the citizens of Flint trust the police to protect them when they can’t even trust their government to provide clean water? This is the kind of question that has placed police officers and African Americans on a collision course. Police officers are seen as outsiders in urban America. White officers are seen as racist, while black officers, like myself, can be seen as traitors to our race.”
“Flint Town” is flawed, worthwhile, and important.
There is so much to be unpacked about “Flint Town,” both on its own flaws and merits, and on the understandable suspicion we Flintstones hold toward outside portrayals of the pain and challenges of life here. I can only hope to skim the surface of what the show gets right and what it gets wrong. I’ll stop short of the glowing praise bestowed by television critics as well as the angry dismissals of the show I’ve heard locally. I think that “Flint Town” is flawed, worthwhile, and important. I think it has something to teach people who live in Flint as well as people who live outside of Flint. I think that there is insight here for both the police and for the people they serve. Ultimately, though, love it or hate it, “Flint Town” is trying to impart some sort of understanding of both a place and a profession. The questions it asks are worth pondering and acting upon:
What is this place?
Who are these people?
What are we going to do next?
Banner photo: A still from Netflix’s “Flint Town”
Connor Coyne is a writer. He has authored two novels, Shattering Glass and Hungry Rats as well as Atlas, a collection of short stories. His website is ConnorCoyne.com, and he can be found on Facebook and Twitter @connorcoyne. He lives in Flint with his wife, two daughters, and an adopted rabbit.
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