Why Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler Went to Flint Instead of the Oscars

Through the ‘Justice for Flint’ event, the duo used their star power to raise awareness and funds for the lead-plagued city.
From left: Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Hannibal Buress, Janelle Monáe. (Photos: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images; Michael Kovac/Getty Images; Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images; Steve Granitz/WireImage via Getty Images)
Feb 29, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

From the stage at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, comedian Chris Rock took on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in his opening monologue, telling the audience that during some of the 1960s, black people didn’t protest the lack of diversity in Hollywood.

“Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time. We had real things to protest,” said Rock. “We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short!”

About 2,300 miles away, some of Hollywood’s brightest stars skipped the Academy Awards to gather at the Whiting Auditorium in Flint, Michigan, and protest a very real modern-day problem: the ongoing issue of lead contamination in Flint’s water supply.

RELATED: Can This Entrepreneur Save Flint From a Plastic Bottle Crisis?

Blackout for Human Rights, a collective of artists and activists working to “address the staggering number of human rights violations in the United States,” hosted “Justice for Flint,” a concert that brought Hollywood’s spotlight to the city’s water crisis.

The collective was founded by Creed director Ryan Coogler and counts Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay as a member. They were joined by about a dozen other A-list artists, including Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monáe, comedian Hannibal Buress, and actor Jesse Williams. On Monday morning, DuVernay tweeted that so far the effort has raised about $145,000. According to the online fund-raising page, the money will be given to “local organizations and groups that are working to improve conditions for the communities in Flint most impacted by the water crisis.”

“Justice for Flint” also featured residents and activists, such as community organizer Nayyirah Shariff, who brought students onstage to talk about having to buy bottled water at school. Monáe, whose backing band wore “Flint Lives Matter” T-shirts, also tweeted some of the stories of Flint residents she met.

“When you talk to the people, it’s so much different from hearing about it in the paper, or reading about it, or seeing a picture,” Coogler explained to The Guardian. “It’s incredibly heartbreaking, but it’s incredibly hopeful. The strength and resilience. You still see people wearing Flint hats. ‘Flint strong.’ ‘Flintstones.’ Their sense of pride can’t be damaged, which in turn is a lesson learned for all of us who came in here.”

The crisis stems from the April 2014 decision by government officials in Flint to stop using water pumped from Lake Huron. That’s when the government switched to H2O from the Flint River, a change that was supposed to save the city $5 million over two years. But that water proved to be so corrosive that lead began leaching out of the pipes, poisoning Flint’s 100,000 residents. Although people in the city are now being encouraged to use filters on faucets, concerns remain about whether the devices can protect them from the high amounts of lead flowing through the system.

“The reality is, we all need water,” said Wonder from the stage. “That’s a human right.” He went on to call the “two years of an entire city, all right, being poisoned” with lead “a heartbreak.” With a comparison to how he would fire his music director if he stopped doing his job, Wonder also seemed to ask for the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Snyder acknowledged the contamination problems in October and declared a state of emergency in January. An ongoing review of his emails seeks to discover why action to fix the problem wasn’t taken sooner.

Monáe and Wonder closed out the concert by leading the crowd in a chant of “Fix the pipes right now.” Chicago-based hip-hop artist Vic Mensa, who also performed during “Justice for Flint,” tweeted a photo of what residents are still dealing with: a half-full gallon of brown-colored water obtained from a faucet in the city.

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is a partner on Oscar-nominated films Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, and The Look of Silence.