How often do you think about your tap water? As you hold a glass, a kettle, an apple under the faucet, is your mind on the menu, the bills … or maybe nothing at all? For some residents of Flint, Mich. — a downtrodden city an hour north of Detroit that once boasted General Motors’ largest plant — what filled their tubs and tumblers became a matter of economics.
And then life and death.
In 2014, state officials gave the go-ahead to use the notoriously polluted Flint River as a temporary water source, a cost-saving measure intended as a two-year stopgap during construction of a new pipeline connecting Flint with Lake Huron. Within months, residents suffered a host of maladies, from rashes and hair loss to serious deterioration of organs and cognition — all related to shocking levels of lead and other contaminants flowing into their homes each day. As the government scrambled to quietly mitigate the growing crisis, alarmed locals realized only they could save themselves.
Spurred by Josh Sanburn’s searing Time magazine cover story “The Toxic Tap,” producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan teamed with Cher, Queen Latifah and Katie Couric to bring the crisis, coverup and remarkable everyday heroes to television in the Lifetime original movie Flint. Rather than belabor mortifying details of how water corrosive enough to destroy car parts was passed off as drinkable, the film focuses on real-life local moms LeeAnne Walters (Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt) and Melissa Mays (Marin Ireland, Sneaky Pete), who joined forces with activist Nayyirah Shariff (Jill Scott, Steel Magnolias) to expose the wrongdoings, even as their own health declined.
“It’s been 10 years for Nayyirah,” Scott says, “and it’s always something new, according to her. It’s always some new thing to fight. Not just poverty. She’s lost a hair. She has headaches when she never did. Random seizures. It’s tactile. And all of these women and their children … you put your child in the bath, and that bath has made them sick. You’re cooking with this water, and then we learn that heating the water up only intensifies the lead. … The biggest message of all to me is we have to participate in our well-being. Everybody’s voice counts. Everybody’s action counts.”
“Melissa didn’t know anything about plumbing or corrosion,” Ireland exclaims of former DJ Mays, who consulted on the film. “That’s all she spends her day doing now, talking about it and educating everybody. She was exhibiting symptoms before she even noticed it in her kids and her husband, because — and this is so heartbreaking — she had just started working with a trainer, trying to get in really good shape and take care of herself. So, she was drinking gallons of that water.”
For Brandt, a proud Michigan native who keeps a “Recall Governor Rick Snyder” button in her car, the story feels especially personal, since the crisis and its fallout is ongoing, even as public outcry wanes.
“I just got into a fight about Flint water with my husband — who’s a smart, good guy!” she grins. “I was like, ‘Really. I want to understand what you think. If I take that water that you know has lead in it and I run it through a Brita [water filter], you’re gonna drink it and think that’s fine?’ He’s like, ‘Well, maybe those filters help.’ I was like, ‘They don’t!’”
And, all agree, neither do elected officials who put thriving careers before thriving constituents.
“I remember a time when we thought the government would take care of the people,” Meron laments. “They don’t anymore. We have to speak up. That’s the essence of the movie, because taxpayers’ money is not to take care of the taxpayers. It’s to take care of somebody else’s pocketbooks. … Melissa told me she had a seizure last week. Her kids don’t have summers anymore because they’re all in rehab trying to reclaim their lives. This is their life.”
Flint > Lifetime > Oct. 28