Why Flint Was the Place to Be on Oscar Night

Performing for a city poisoned by its own state government, a group of black stars provided necessary Academy Awards counterprogramming.

On Oscar night, Ryan Coogler was about as far away from a red carpet as one could imagine — psychologically, if not physically. The director of Creed and Fruitvale Station stood on the Whiting Auditorium’s wooden stage in Flint, Michigan, in front of a capacity crowd. He didn’t have a black tie on. Instead, he sported black jeans and a black-t-shirt with "#JusticeForFlint Event Staff" on on the back. It was a work night.

Coogler and Selma director Ava DuVernay, both part of the activist entertainment collective Blackout for Human Rights, helped organize an Oscar-night benefit for the former automotive manufacturing hub, which is mostly populated by black residents. Flint has been suffering the staggering consequences of a water crisis ever since the city’s water supply was switched from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River. It was a cost-cutting move made by Michigan governor Rick Snyder’s administration, which knew how damaging a decision they’d made well before they acted to rectify it. Since her election in November, Mayor Karen Weaver's vocal advocacy has helped widen the national spotlight on the problem, attracting the resources and attention of Democrats running for president. The contamination of a U.S. city by its own government, and environmental violence against the poor and against African Americans, are now commonplace topics of conversation. But there’s also the reality of Flint residents who have to get their water from plastic bottles and live bound every day by precautions to prevent them from becoming poisoned -- further poisoned -- in their own homes.

So, yes, there has been work to do. But work for folks like Coogler and DuVernay usually looks like fun. After all, they’re here to entertain us. But, to tell you the truth, it was dope to see a largely black group of stars leave Hollywood on its holiest night to remind us of two of the true purposes of popular entertainment: escape and catharsis. Sometimes, as you might expect, that meant laughing to keep from crying.

Three hours before the Oscar curtain dropped, comedian Hannibal Buress opened the show with, naturally, a water joke. He talked about checking into a local Holiday Inn Express and not being told, as he put it: "Hey, the water’s poisoned right now!" (Side note--it’s probably the same hotel I stayed in when visiting Flint in December, and I didn’t get a warning, either.) He joked that, even he could tell the Flint River was probably not where you should be getting your tap water from. "I’m no science dude, I’m a comedian… [but] naw, don’t do that," he said. "I think this is the only way you can get people to move to Detroit."

The evening’s subsequent performances rarely strayed far from Flint’s predicament and other recent tragedies. Hip-hop artists Mysonne and Jasiri X unleashed a nakedly political set, and R&B star Ledisi sang a moving version of Simon & Garfunkel’s "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Oscar-nominated actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo, a participant in a Saturday online chat to promote the event, sent a video message of support. Janelle Monae capped the evening with a great set featuring some of her own music and one from right down the road in Motown. At the end of her set, surprise guest Stevie Wonder -- a Saginaw, Michigan native -- arrived on stage to perform.

Artists Musiq Soulchild, Jazmine Sullivan, and Robert Glasper performed; Glasper, with his humorous interaction with the crowd, was essentially a second MC whenever he was on stage. Actors Hill Harper and Jesse Williams were there to help give shine to the grassroots effort.

As during Coogler’s #MLKNOW celebration in New York last month, the performances were spaced out between speeches and discussion featuring local organizers and residents. "The grassroots were the ones who kept us alive," said activist Nayirrah Sharif of the Flint Democracy Defense League. "The streets did not let Snyder get a pass." A group of young white siblings talked with Sharif about how poorly their schools were handling the crisis; she also had on the stage a black mother who’d lost her unborn twins to the contaminated water. Flint pediatrician Mona Hannah-Attisha spoke eloquently about how the city’s problems extend beyond the water. Williams passed the mic to a group of young black boys living through the crisis, eliciting perhaps the most tearjerking moment of the night.

At the heart of it, the evening was about not just making Flint more visible, but more human. Too often, these communities stricken by violence--whether it be of the kind we’re used to seeing on the evening news, or this kind, the kind of violence that wounds and kills Americans from inside their own showers and water glasses. But the #JusticeForFlint event humanized those affected not by exposing their lives to some documentary exposé or political show: it allowed us to share their joy via livestream as they joined in a spiritual embrace, what Coogler called a "group hug."

Mayor Weaver put it best, right at the start. "This event provides a wonderful night of entertainment for our residents," she told the audience. "While we can never forget what’s happened in the city of Flint … we deserve a night of fun. Flint deserves to have a good time."