Bless Cher's heart. The singer, actress and living legend has reportedly signed on to star in Lifetime's Flint, a TV movie about the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. The film will be produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, a team best-known for working on NBC's live musicals and the two-season musical drama Smash. Katie Couric will also produce, while Australian Bruce Beresford will direct and Barbara Stepansky will write.
The Flint crisis, a horrifying failure of government that continues to leave the people of the city without drinkable water, is a cause near and dear to Cher's heart. She's spoken out about it on multiple occasions and donated bottled water to the city. It's admirable that, as Americans move on while Flint residents still suffer, she wants to use her star power to keep talking about the crisis.
Unfortunately, at least from what we know so far, this project is not the right way to go, despite everyone's best intentions. There are myriad reasons for this, including the fact that the crisis itself still rages. But most importantly: This is not the appropriate team for this story.
First, there's the choice of network. Lifetime has been making moves toward more serious cinematic programming, but the network is still best known for movies that, as the Washington Post puts it, are "synonymous with curling up on a lazy weekend afternoon in front of the TV, trying but thoroughly unable to tear yourself away from a movie called My Stepson, My Lover." So a plot description like this one (per Deadline) feels a bit incongruous:
The hard-hitting fact-based drama examines the events that led to the "toxic crime" committed against the residents of Flint. It is looking to shed light not only on the politics and poor management that led to the poisoning of the water, but also the human element of the residents who not only suffered but whose voices were ignored.
This is not the most appropriate venue for a story about a state of emergency that continues to affect American citizens daily. Perhaps that's unfair — Lifetime could always create a feature film-quality project, or at least HBO-worthy — but the perception is there. In an age where optics can derail a project before it even airs, putting Flint on Lifetime feels like an ill-conceived move.
Then there are the producers. Though Couric's involvement is encouraging — as a news personality, she'll likely be conscientious about telling the story truthfully — Zadan and Meron are all wrong for the project. Shepherding musicals and producing the Oscars require almost entirely different skill sets than working on a project like this. Yes, the men have worked on more serious projects before, but not to any major critical or commercial success.
But the biggest problem for Zadan and Meron — and Couric, Beresford, Stepansky and even Cher — is the same as it's been since the project was first bought back in April. Flint's water crisis is overwhelmingly a problem for black Americans. Why is this team all white?
From TVLine's report, we know Cher will be playing "a Flint resident whose family is affected by the Michigan town's water-contamination scandal." That's a vague description that could mean Cher is a supporting player or the lead; though Deadline says she's "starring," that doesn't automatically make her the singular protagonist.
Cher's casting is troubling but not yet troublesome. Judging by her star power, it's hard to believe she'd play a small role, though she may just be lending that power to the project to raise its profile. That would be the right move, frankly; this story needs black actors at the fore. Flint isn't exclusively an issue for black Americans, but the population affected is overwhelmingly black. Any kind of filmed account of the story should be accurate about this.
Flint isn't a doomed project, though the fact that it will remain at Lifetime with Zadan and Meron stacks the cards against it. What the producers need to do is get black creators involved — figures who care about the crisis, like Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler and Janelle Monáe — both in front of and behind the camera. Beresford and Stepansky can remain involved, but not without taking major input from others. As has been proven, representation behind the camera matters just as much as it does in front of it. Simply filling the cast with black actors alongside Cher won't be enough.
It's almost certain that every single person involved in making Flint has good intentions. But intentions aren't enough, especially when dealing with such a sensitive topic. To get the story right, creators must do proper, deliberate, thorough work, not "fast-track" the story to get it up as soon as possible.
Flint won't be the last dramatization of the water crisis, but it will likely be the first. It needs to be done right — and so far, every sign we've got is a sign that this is all wrong.