Anyone who was raised during the era of “Erin Brockovich” understands that the reason why people have been flocking to bottled water: companies have done much to ensure that the only safe drinking water is sold. Both “Dark Waters” and “Erin Brockovich” discuss how companies sell the local communities a bill of goods, but “Dark Waters” demonstrates the battle for water safety from a different perspective: a privileged White male. As the story advances, the audience discovers that even among the elite, anyone who is discovered bucking the dominant narrative is allowed to be destroyed. However, Robert Bilott (the main attorney) shows us that at some point, consequences must exist or the dominant narrative will destroy us all.
Having lived in the northeast, the most interesting part of the movie initially is that it is about DuPont, but based in West Virginia. DuPont is not only a company, but a prominent wealthy family based in Delaware, which I learned about having actually visited Wilmington, Delaware in 1999. The geography is important because many people will discuss how everyone needs to “start a business” or “build your own table, and admonish people for not becoming self-made. This is nonsensical when one actually considers that there are families with wealth that began over 200 years ago; there is no competing with that. A Delaware based family with wealth for over 175 years when the story began that this movie is based on is not “even-handed competition.” Even the White people in this movie have no chance of being on a level playing field with entities like the DuPonts.
One of the most difficult aspects of the battle between Bilott and DuPont was the fact that the company was a great patron of Parkersburg, West Virginia. So many people worked for the company, and so much corporate money was invested in the local community that the clients who engaged Bilott were shunned as much as he was. In this way, many corporations have been able to distract from the damage they cause; schmoozing the local government is a popular tactic for a reason. If the general populace believes that going against the corporation will eliminate the local economy, people will be more reluctant to protect themselves and their rights. Eventually, the local and state governments work with Bilott, but not before it cost him his health and almost his marriage. Social capital is a crucial weapon in protecting big companies from feisty citizens.
Within Bilott’s firm is a Black lawyer who is depicted as supportive of the dominant narrative. This is significant for two reasons. One, most Black people who are able to climb all the barriers erected to eschew Black people have had to compromise without cessation for many years. It is unsafe to oppose the dominant narrative, and when one of the head partners begins to agree with Bilott, the Black attorney is unsure of whether to change his position. Power is never held easily for tokenized Black people, so one problem with the film is that there is a bit of “White saviorism” with Bilott being portrayed as the only one willing to fight this difficult battle. After all, the Black lawyers who worked with Kim Kardashian West knew to remain in the shadows lest their progress be undermined by racism.
Two, and this is perhaps the most troublesome aspect of this film: this battle overshadows the fact that Black and brown communities have been environmentally degraded for centuries. In How to Hide an Empire, Daniel Immerwahr describes the destruction wreaked over many Indigenous communities. In Toxic Communities, Dorcetta Taylor discusses how environmental debasement is par for the course in Black and brown communities. All of this cruelty has been swept under the rug, but when there is finally representation about environmental justice, the most prominent voices chosen to illustrate the severity are White. It is as if to say, “This issue is so powerful that even White people are being affected.” Bilott was more than likely not trying to send this message, but until there is more general exposure to the environmental atrocities that have affected communities before being acknowledged by the dominant narrative, environmental justice will be scant.
All in all, “Dark Waters” demonstrates the dilemma of the White middle class’ fealty to the corporate world. Yes, there may be a slight possibility that someone might earn enough money to discard their community and have power. Nonetheless, constituents would be better served demanding that their local governments set firm boundaries with those working for their own benefit. The time has come for everyone to stop worshiping people who hurt us and to demand some accountability for the sake of the future.