"Flint Town," an eight-part documentary series premiering Friday on Netflix, spends a little more than a year in the beleaguered city of Flint, Michigan, mainly following members of its understaffed, underfunded police force. Directed by Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper and Jessica Dimmock — Canepari and Cooper also co-directed the 2016 "T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold" about the Flint-based Olympic-gold medal boxer Claressa Shields — it's a worthwhile piece: disquieting, suspenseful, informative in a human more than a statistical way, often eloquent, basically balanced and occasionally adorable.
Flint was once famous as a place where cars were made, and later as a place where cars were no longer made. (See Michael Moore's "Roger & Me.") It earned a different sort of renown when in 2014, money-saving measures led to the poisoning of the city's water supply, a crisis that, along with the 2016 presidential campaign — oh, it seems so long ago — forms the backdrop of "Flint Town."
Even before that, it had earned a bad reputation, ranking year after year among the nation's most violent, and poorest, municipalities, but with fewer than 100 officers to serve a city of 100,000. Says one officer, "There's no real policing done when you're taking that many calls. You're just driving to addresses like a UPS man."
The series begins in advance of the November 2015 election that brought in a new mayor, Karen Weaver, a Flint native (and still mayor, after a recall election last November), and with her a new police chief, Tim Johnson. Johnson is something of a go-getter — "I'm not a politician, I'm a crime fighter," and crime fighting, he says, is something he can do "in my sleep" — who talks about "zero tolerance" and sets up a special tactical crime area target team staffed with "hard chargers." He gets results, for a while, but charging hard inevitably will prove to have its critics as well as it supporters.
"Flint Town" has the expensive look of theatrical fictional filmmaking; it glories in winter snow and summer green. Holidays come and go: Christmas, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Christmas again. There are artful shots of the moon through clouds and fireflies in a yard, of goldfish, a dog’s eyes, even a coffee maker making coffee. Its prettiness usefully reminds the viewer that there is more to Flint than crime. In other respects, it is a little too gorgeous for its own good, aestheticizing crime scene tape, blood splatter, shell casings, abandoned houses, the hand of a corpse in the snow. Similarly, it goes from scenes of patient observation to those that indulge in the stylistic tics of cop shows. The filmmaking sometimes gets in the way of the film.
The police are seen alternately as aggressive, awkward and understanding, and always under stress. The budget, and whether the department will lose even more officers — many have been laid off and rehired before — is a main narrative thread. Given the series' length, it develops surprisingly few substantial personal story lines. There are many people here, with things to say and do, personally or politically, but most don’t develop into full-fledged characters.
Among those who do are police officers Robert Frost, a 12-year veteran whose earliest memory is of a police siren, and Bridgette Balasko, three years in, with sights on the detective desk and, beyond that, the FBI. Minor spoiler: They're in a relationship. Each is Hollywood attractive — they look like actors who would be hired to play them on television — and willing to get personal.
She: "He is kind of rough, he spouts off at the mouth... but I liked him from the beginning."
He: "Her caliber of person is far beyond me, but I keep trying."
The series' other main personal focus is the development of young cadet Dion Reed, training at the regional police academy in a class that also includes his mother, Maria. (Maria: "He's always been my little sidekick." Dion: "There's no doubt that she's going to have my back.") Dion, who has a fiancee and a child and has lost old friends in joining the force, goes on a journey from exuberance — "I want to chase somebody, I think that would be the funnest part” — to experience: "Most of the time they just want someone and need someone to talk to," he will say of the people he eventually meets on the job.
“Flint Town” is perhaps longer than it needs to be, which is something of a premium-television trend. (It’s like when CDs came in, and every album had 20 songs). Yet I watched it all in a single go (with dinner break) without getting fidgety. It's clear, even from a little casual outside research, that there is more to Flint than the stories told here — and more to the stories told here than is told here — but all documentaries necessarily leave things out. This one concentrates on crises.
What the filmmakers show is all worth a look, and maybe a second one. (Residents get a say too; note the inevitable, but never unwelcome, black barber shop scene.) It opens you up to different, conflicting points of view — or at least reminds you that they exist — which is just what you want from such a series.
"Cops, we all pretty much spend the first four, five years doing the same thing, learning how to be the police,” says Brian Willingham , an African American officer and Flint native who becomes the series’ most eloquent voice on race. “And then it becomes a matter of how the reality sets in for you."
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)