Review: ‘Flint Town’ takes tough look at city in crisis

The Netflix docu-series is tough but essential viewing

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“Flint Town” is tough, gritty and vital, just like the city for which it’s named.

The engrossing eight-part Netflix docu-series focuses not on Flint’s water crisis, but piles the water crisis on top of the lengthy list of the city’s headaches, along with its crime rate, poverty, murder rate and underfunded police force.

Two men are handcuffed by local police after they were found asleep in their car, which was parked in the middle of the street. The men had taken some painkillers and passed out.

That police force is the primary focal point of “Flint Town.” The series unfolds as a year in the life of the Flint Police Department, from around Nov. 2015 to Dec. 2016, as the city welcomes a new mayor and a new police chief and tries to turn around years of historic decline.

There are plenty of mountains in the way, and most of them revolve around numbers. Budget cuts have decimated the city’s police force, bringing the number of police officers patrolling the city from 300 a few years ago down to just 98 as the series begins. That’s 98 officers to oversee 100,000 citizens, the lowest ratio of officers to citizens for any comparable city in the nation, “Flint Town” tells us. And that results in long delays — up to 27 hours to answer police calls, in the event they get answered at all.

Long in decline, Flint — the one-time home of America’s middle class, and the city that gave us MC Breed, Michael Moore and Halo Burger — is in a constant state of crisis, and “Flint Town” doesn’t sugarcoat any of it. Directors Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari (the 2015 documentary “T-Rex”), working with photojournalist Jessica Dimmock, show the futility of policing in a town where guns, drugs and crime are a seemingly unstoppable force. Couple it with the rising animosity toward police and racial tension — “Flint Town” unfolds in the shadow of the Black Lives Matter movement, which rose from nationwide incidents of black males being killed by white police officers — and you’ve got quite a cocktail for civil discord and unrest.

Officer Bridget Balasko holds a small child while her father is being searched and questioned. The suspect on the left claimed to have just lost his job and didn't have anywhere to go so he was just hanging in his car with his daughter until the child's mother got off of work. At one point, the child was crying and Balasko reached into the suspect's pocket to pull out a pacifier for her.

But there’s a human element that drives the series and gives it a flicker of hope. “Flint Town” focuses on several officers working the beat day in and day out, fixing mainly on Bridgette Balasko and Robert Frost, a pair of officers who linked up romantically while on the job. Balasko, a three-year officer with the force who resembles Alicia Silverstone, isn’t tied to Flint and dreams of graduating to a stint with the FBI. Frost, who looks a bit like Patrick Wilson, is more rooted in the community, and has stuck with the police through multiple layoffs. In one of the series’ later episodes, Frost and Balasko take a vacation to Mexico, a trip which marks Frost’s first-ever ride on an airplane. Talk about needing a vacation.

“Flint Town” also looks at a mother-son team of police cadets and the formation of a task force sent to clean up the city by its new chief of police, Timothy Johnson, who is appointed at the end of the series’ first episode. Johnson is fighting his own battles, clashing with city council over funding and having to go hat-in-hand to the citizens for the passing of a millage or face even more layoffs and budget cuts. The city cannot catch a break.

Like “Cops,” the series follows officers on the job, but it’s not about the thrill of the chase. “Flint Town” is more invested in the officers and the idea of working with the community, trying to establish a rapport with the town, even at a time when police are receiving more blowback than ever. It’s stressful but important viewing.

Since it unfolds in an election year — one where the water crisis kept Flint in the national headlines — “Flint Town” includes visits to the town by Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The talking heads are kept mainly to the cops, along with Flint residents talking about their experiences with the police in their city.

“Flint Town” isn’t a rah-rah Flint thing, nor does it paint a fuzzy picture about the spirit of the city or its citizens. Flint is a timebomb, and “Flint Town” is an impressively crafted tick-tock of things going wrong with a place, one after another. Multiple people across the course of the series wonder aloud how much further a single city can be pushed without slipping into oblivion. The answer isn’t clear, but Flint is still somehow standing, which is all the testament to its resilience you need.

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‘Flint Town’


Streaming on Netflix beginning Friday