‘Spring Valley’: Film Review | SXSW 2021

Garrett Zevgetis chronicles the aftermath of a 2015 viral incident in which a white school officer assaulted a Black 16-year-old student in her math class.

In the fall of 2015, a 16-year-old girl named Shakara was removed from her math class by school officer Ben Fields with such force that footage of the incident went viral. “Are you gonna come with me, or am I gonna make you?” asks Fields in a video, before flipping over Shakara’s desk with her in it, landing the teenager on her back with the desk overturned above her. The officer then yanks Shakara out of the desk by an arm and a leg, drags her halfway across the crowded classroom and orders her to put her arms behind her back. Shakara and another girl — Niya, who had encouraged her classmates to record what would happen to Shakara when she saw it was Fields entering the room — were then arrested for “disturbing school,” a vaguely defined criminal offense in South Carolina (and other states) that opponents say is used disproportionately against students of color. Fields lost his job. But as with so many of these viral cases, there’s a lot more to the story.

Garrett Zevgetis’ new documentary, Spring Valley, chronicles what happened after. Named after the high school where Fields worked, and to which Shakara and Niya never returned, the SXSW selection is a well intentioned but messy account of the aftermath, its impact undermined by its hazy focus. The de facto protagonist of the film is eventually revealed to be neither the Spring Valley students nor Fields (who gets plenty of screen time himself), but Vivian Anderson, a Columbia-based activist who, through her organization Every Black Girl, fights to get individual “disturbing school” charges dropped and to pull police officers from schools.

The Bottom Line

Ambitious but messy.

Spring Valley is strongest when it contextualizes Shakara’s case within the larger movement to decrease police presence in academic institutions (which won some victories last year following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor). Advocates argue that, especially when combined with “disturbing school” laws, school resource officers (SROs) can criminalize minor improprieties, exercise undue force, contribute to unequal treatment from school authority figures and result in poorer educational outcomes for students of color, since teens arrested at school are twice as likely to drop out. A series of videos and headlines of SROs assaulting children or arresting them for the slightest provocations — one for burping in class — drive home the point.

The doc is also effective in chronicling the fallout from the case — and illustrating why the public pressure that accompanies virality doesn’t necessarily translate to justice for victims. Zevgetis excerpts from the 12,000-page report that the FBI published after its investigation (though it’s not quite clear why the Bureau got involved) and notes that the ACLU filed a lawsuit on Niya’s behalf (though what that yielded, the film doesn’t say). It’s invaluable to hear from Shakara herself, who grants her first interview about the incident to Zevgetis, and to learn of Fields’ history of excessive force, which led to three earlier lawsuits against him. In perhaps the most shocking (and depressing) twist in the film, the other SRO at Spring Valley High, Jamel Bradley, is later arrested for sexually assaulting a student. Meanwhile, it took another four years after Fields’ assault for Shakara to get her GED.

In other words, there’s more than enough story here for Zevgetis to parse through, and more than enough context in which to situate this case. Which is why it’s disappointing that the director distracts from them by cluttering Spring Valley with self-indulgent montages about the “thickness” of South Carolinean geography and by orchestrating voguish documentary set-ups that prove fruitless. Zevgetis records, for example, Fields’ face while the ex-cop rewatches the viral footage for the first time in years. The subject’s patent aversion toward self-reflection might be illuminating if it weren’t for the fact that Fields essentially spends the rest of the documentary doing the same, spouting right-wing talking points about the incident that cost him his job that not-so-subtly gesture toward his moral self-acquittal. It’s even more frustrating watching Anderson meet up with Fields several times; the two only ever talk past each other in spite of the activist’s best efforts at good-faith engagement.

If all the screen time that Fields gets is worth anything, it’s in illustrating how conservatives have set up their own counter-narratives that claim that there is no racial disparity in police treatment and that the school-to-prison pipeline is a lie. (Fields himself calls the latter “one of the biggest hoaxes.”) But none of that is particularly news, nor is it all that surprising that Fields has found a political oasis among like-minded people who believe an absence of law enforcement in schools would ultimately cause more harm to students of color, despite his own blaming of his behavior on his law-enforcement training.

It’s unfortunate that the moral clarity Anderson tries to bring to the issues of police presence in schools, the criminalization of disobedience and the disproportionate impact these forces have on students of color (and maybe especially girls of color) is so muddled by the director’s ambitious but overly embellished storytelling choices. The truth doesn’t need frills.

Venue: SXSW 2021 (Documentary Spotlight)
Production companies: Disturbing Films

Director: Garrett Zevgetis
Producers: Ariana Garfinkel, Jeff Consiglio, Chico Colvard
Directors of photography: Alexandre Naufel, Christopher Lewis Dawkins, Pablo Durana, Ryan Miyamoto, Laura Kissel, Vanessa Carr 
Editor: Jeff Consiglio
Composer: Chanda Dancy

108 minutes