On Oct. 12, four formerly incarcerated individuals captured the attention of UC Berkeley’s Stanley Hall by way of both screen and stage. Throughout the evening, a captivated crowd wiped away tears of both sympathetic joy and secondhand defeat, leaving with hands sore from clapping.
Thursday night marked the premier screening of Cal alumna Skylar Economy’s documentary, “From Incarceration to Education,” or “FITE.” The film offers a moving, three-dimensional depiction of the imprisonment and subsequent UC education, of its four subjects: David Maldonado, Shalita Williams, Richard Rodriguez-Leon and Clarence Ford. By following the intimate microcosms of the personal triumphs and tragedies of each subject, the documentary succeeds in commenting upon a macrocosm of injustices experienced before, during and after incarceration.
The film consists primarily of interview clips with Maldonado, Williams, Rodriguez-Leon and Ford, who offer first-hand insight into the carceral system. Economy also works in footage from each subject’s daily life at UC Berkeley, subtly orienting the viewers with elegant aerial shots of campus. In turn, “FITE” offers a comparison and contrast of each subject’s story, laying a rich framework for a critical examination of the transition from incarceration to education.
The documentary opens with commentary from Maldonado, whose 16 years in jail did not prevent him from pursuing a doctorate. Having experienced higher education as both formerly incarcerated student and teacher, Maldonado profoundly understands the revolutionary nature of such pursuits. The attainment of advanced educational degrees by those frequently deemed permanently tainted has the potential to shift dialogues. As Maldonado asserts of scholarship, “If you take it high enough, you can change the conversation.”
While expanding upon the many doors opened by education, undergraduate Williams also pays blunt testament to the challenges she faces as a Black female in college. Williams’ gender and ethnicity, as well as her youth in the “ghettos” of East Oakland and her 14 years in and out of jail, form additional barriers to success than the piles of schoolwork faced by so many UC Berkeley students. Williams acutely demonstrates the essential nature of remarkable perseverance in hoisting oneself up from a past of violence and poverty.
As the only Black man followed throughout “FITE,” Clarence Ford contributes a distinctive, and decidedly necessary, perspective to the discussion of prison-education tensions. Ford recalls dealing drugs as a final resort after giving up basketball. Having lost a sister to street violence, Ford associates his education with a duty to serve more than solely himself: “I’m not just here for me,” he says. “It’s about the people I left behind.”
Ford brings to “FITE” a hope for a more just future, helping to prevent from slipping into a message of despair. Remarkably, Ford’s aspirations are bolstered not by ignorance, but by the successes he has experienced in the face of crippling hardships.
Unlike Maldonado, Williams and Ford, Economy introduces Rodriguez-Leon before his acceptance to UC Berkeley. Rodriguez-Leon’s genial smile and contagious laugh make him immediately likable; it is hard not to root for him as he voices his desire to transfer from his community college to UC Berkeley. Upon learning of his acceptance, Economy shows the young adult beaming in front of Sather Gate.
“I made it where I wanted to be, where I didn’t ever think it was possible for me to be,” he muses, a cinematic embodiment of perseverance in the face of carceral adversity.
Each subject also cites the significance of community in transitioning to the university. The film illustrates how much of this support stems from the Underground Scholars Initiative, or USI. Founded by formerly incarcerated UC Berkeley graduates Danny Murillo and Steven Czifra, the group works closely with previously imprisoned youths in providing them access to pathways to education. Even after acceptance into college, USI continues to offer guidance and support to its students.
Economy’s efforts to work side-by-side with USI toward a more just system of justice illustrates one of the most resounding accomplishments of “FITE”: moving past raising awareness to concrete action toward reform. Meant for screening in juvenile detention centers, and in general as a resource for the formerly incarcerated, “FITE” not only provides hope for life after prison, but lays out frameworks for success as well. As producer and co-director Christian Collins commented in an interview with The Daily Californian with regards to the purpose of “FITE” that “it was to actually change people, and the way people thought about themselves while they’re incarcerated.” In order to further ensure the success of this goal, an informative presentation from Root & Rebound, which offers free legal services to those coming out of the carceral system, will follow each screening.
Though spanning no more than half an hour, “FITE” achieves a coherent message of the difficulties and rewards of higher education. Communicated through the unique lenses of Maldonado, Williams, Rodriguez-Leon and Ford, the documentary acknowledges the human nuances of the issue, increasing any audience’s receptiveness to its stories.
As the lights in Stanley Hall slowly rose, signaling the end of the screening, the audience did the same, filling the auditorium with uproarious applause.
As UC Berkeley undergraduate student Arcadia Eckmayer later commented, “I absolutely loved it. I thought it was phenomenal, and the topics that it touched on aren’t necessarily conveyed in mainstream media, and that’s why I think this film did such a great job, of … changing the narrative and putting it out there.”
Economy and Collins stood back, beaming.
“We really poured our life into it, for the past two years,” noted a happily overwhelmed Collins, “And so once the applause happened, and everything happened, I was just … stunned, taking it back. It was a moment that I will probably never forget.”
Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].