'Flint Town': TV Review

Closely tied to the Flint PD, but not lacking for complexity and pragmatism.

Netflix's eight-episode documentary series about the police department in Flint, Mich., is a reminder of the city's problems beyond the finally much discussed water crisis.

Since General Motors began reducing its workforce in the '80s, the city of Flint, Mich., hasn't lacked for negative press, with the recent focus primarily on the horrible and deadly water crisis, which, if you're keeping score at home, remains an ongoing and largely unresolved concern.

Think of Netflix's documentary series Flint Town, premiering March 2, as that nagging voice at the back of your mind yelling, "Hi! This is Flint! No, our residents don't have potable water! But please don't forget that we also have one of the highest rates of violent crime in the country!"

The water crisis remains ever on the periphery in Flint Town, in which directors-cinematographers Zackary Canepari, Jessica Dimmock and Drea Cooper spent a year entrenched with the Flint Police Department. By the nature of its access, Flint Town's perspective is heavily weighted toward the institution of law enforcement in Flint. During some moments it absolutely feels like a recruitment video, though the series as a whole possesses enough introspection and pragmatism not to be uncomfortable, the result of interview subjects at ease enough to let down their guard (or their badges) to see the big picture in a city that's trying not to fail, even if it lacks the resources to succeed.

Structurally, the eight episodes begin in November 2015 and carry through December 2016. Those months include the first year of Tim Johnson's reign as police chief and chronicle his early efforts to restore order with a force that went from 300 officers to less than 100 in a decade, looking at initiatives such as the Crime Area Target Team and the volunteer recruitment of unqualified civilians, who were trained to handle certain rudimentary police duties. Episodes, which seem to generally have holidays from July 4th to Halloween to Christmas as backdrops, take us through the 2016 election, including visits to the town from many of the candidates and a key tax renewal that could be life or death for the department.

Lest that sounds too dry, Flint Town has a few personal stories woven throughout, cutting through the crime statistics and harrowing patrol runs and frost-bitten urban blight with character arcs that, heaven forbid, could actually be best described as "cute."

There's almost no other way to look at the relationship between Robert Frost, a 12-year FPD veteran, and Bridgette Balasko, with three years under her belt. He's a salty conservative, wedded to the city and the region so totally that he's never even been on an airplane. She's almost bubbly and giddy about advancing her career, making detective and eventually going federal. They're basically a Shonda Rhimes show brought to life and you wouldn't even need to recast the photogenic subjects.

If that's not working for you, concentrate more on Dion Reed, ready to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a police officer and starting at the Police Academy only to discover he's sharing his training with … his mother, Maria. Not enough wacky high jinks actually ensue here, but the possibility of wacky high jinks is enough.

Those may be the officers Flint Town goes home with, but the directors have access well beyond the human-interest cops. We get a wide variety of voices from the force, starting at the top with Chief Johnson, who repeatedly describes himself as a crime fighter and not a politician. What it means to be a crime fighter in 2016, and not just in Flint, is very much at the heart of this show. The series picks up after Ferguson became a national talking point, meaning we're able to watch these officers respond to not only police violence like the killing of Philando Castile, but also the shooting of police officers in Dallas and then Baton Rouge and Brooklyn. The series captures the Flint cops processing this escalating violence during roll calls and through news coverage and it isn't surprising how many of them side with and sympathize with their colleagues even in cases like the Castile shooting. Though the expressions of overt racism may be curbed by the presence of cameras, there's enough subtle and not-so-subtle contempt for civilians and for the inevitably liberal politicians these cops see as abetting the law-breaking. Still, the directors established enough comfort that several long-termed black officers don't hesitate to point out racial divides in the community and even on the police force and, as the Election Day shocker unfolds, we see growing sadness at this divide.

The Flint community itself isn't nearly as well-represented. Those community voices aren't absent. The filmmakers go to City Council meetings and local protests and even a barber shop, and there are residents featured as talking heads, but the locals are rarely named, never given jobs or context. It's possible that the locals are stripped of those basic traits to show how hard it is for officers to make basic connections to the community given how understaffed they are, making the people of Flint angry faces and complaining voices, rarely people.

There's a comparable tactic to how the filmmakers treat the calls the officers go out on. Whether it's a routine traffic stop or a drug raid or a murder, there's a matter-of-fact professionalism that isn't impacted by the sight of a dead body on the ground or the sound of gunshots. Each episode ends with a note that the subjects of these investigations are innocent until proved guilty, fair since we don't know their names, much less what they were being charged with or if they were being charged at all. They're a part of the job, not really people. If I had to guess, I'd say this isn't a flaw in the series' storytelling, rather the filmmakers are making a choice as a way to point out flaws in Johnson's methodology.

As happens with so many Netflix shows, Flint Town doesn't feel quite comfortable in its final format. Some episodes are a brief and strangely empty 35 minutes, others are a meatier 45-plus. This makes for a fast binge and also for the sensation that the series definitely had too much story to be a documentary feature, but that "eight episodes" was a dart board call. It doesn't always feel like each storyline is moving at the same pace and some episodes feature big jumps in time, and then there's the election-night episode told almost as a minute-by-minute diary.

Though it may be sloppy and inconsistent at times, Flint Town also looks beautiful. The drive-by shots of boarded-up houses and weed-overgrown vacant lots are both familiar and haunting. The depiction of winter — its unsettling, snow-damped silences and blizzard-fueled disorientation and white, pillowy beauty — is especially well-handled. The talking heads, filmed with spare black backdrops, are stark and dynamic and pair well with the close-up intimacy of interviews conducted in police cars.

Even though the series emanates from a position within the Flint PD, Flint Town does not sugar coat the progress made, or not made, in the 13 months of observation. It finds some hope and points to some attempted solutions. Mostly it sees and tries to understand problems, problems that go far deeper than the ongoing tragedy of the water crisis and therefore problems that could be carried over to overworked, understaffed police departments in cities larger and smaller.

comments powered by Disqus