Dir: Garrett Bradley. Starring: Sibil Fox Richardson, Robert G Richardson. PG, 81 mins
Time shows us what the likes of Ava DuVernay’s 13th could not – that the great, malevolent trauma of America’s penal system stretches far beyond the prison gates. It ravages the lives of women robbed of husbands, children robbed of parents. It bites chunks out of the family unit like a shark that’s just caught the scent of blood. Garrett Bradley’s documentary walks among the affected, taking note of their sacrifices and of their victories, however small. There are no statistics, no experts on hand to offer civic lessons or stern proclamations. Time is a pure, unembellished call for empathy. It would be foolish to ignore it.
Bradley, who was a second unit director on DuVernay’s crime drama When They See Us, achieves great intimacy with the subject of her own documentary: Sibil Fox Richardson, aka Fox Rich, a New Orleans activist and business owner. Rich is also the mother of six sons, who she’s raised on her own while their father, Robert, serves time at Louisiana State Penitentiary. In a sense, she should be thought of as more of a co-collaborator – she, at one point, handed Bradley over 100 hours’ worth of home videos. Snippets of them are featured here, played both forwards and in reverse, as if to emphasise that time is only a passing sensation, never static. We’re shown theme parks, snow days, formal events and swimming pools. Her boys grow into men, off to study dentistry or political science.
There’s a novelistic quality to Time, which plays out entirely in black and white. Rich offers some partial narration, in which she recounts that her grandmother worked as a housekeeper for country musician Hank Williams’s mother. Occasionally, flashes of a misty, mystical swamp puncture the harsh realities. At other times, the delicate piano compositions of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a 96-year-old Ethiopian nun, play. Bradley makes her audience acutely aware of the passage of time, and the way people age, without letting them pin down events to a specific time or place – Rich’s story is far too common, after all.
Details are kept to a bare minimum. Rich and Robert were high school sweethearts from Shreveport, Louisiana, who had dreams of opening the city’s first hip-hop clothing store but struggled to make ends meet. “Desperate people do desperate things,” Rich tells us. On 16 September 1997, they robbed a credit union, armed. Robert was sentenced to 60 years without the benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence. Rich, who drove the getaway car, served three and a half. Their guilt is significant – so much of the narrative around the penal system centres on false convictions, but there are even broader questions to be asked. Why has someone like Robert, who poses no threat to society, had his entire life stolen from him on the basis of one mistake?
In another life, one of greater opportunity, Rich could have been a politician. Passion ripples through her as she tells a crowd how “our prison system [is] slavery and I’m an abolitionist”. Instead, she’s caught up in an endless cycle of phone calls to the judge’s office, dead ends and red tape. She’s so accustomed to let-downs, she doesn’t even cry anymore. We’re only privy to one true burst of emotion – it starts with the ever-frantic repetition of the phrase “success is the best revenge”. Rich slams her desk. Her eyes burn with fury. Then she catches herself, quiets the rage, and casually asks a figure off-camera: “Alright, what we got next?” It’s a soul-shattering sight.