It’s striking to me how much joy there is in Garrett Bradley’s 2020 documentary, Time. It overflows with it. It earns those moments of overflowing. This is a slim 81-minute feature that essays 20 round years of what would be, by any yardstick, unimaginable hardship. It feels bigger than that.
Ostensibly, this is a film about a woman, Sibil Fox Richardson — who goes by Fox Rich — endeavouring to overcome the justice system and have clemency granted upon her husband, Rob, who is serving 60 years at Angola without the possibility of parole.
Time is not coy about how the Richardsons got here: they committed a crime. With a growing family and growing debt, they tried to rob a bank in the late 1990s. Fox got three years, striking a plea bargain. Rob didn’t. Now, here we are. They are an incarcerated family. I don’t think either parent would say that Fox has been raising their family alone. I think they would say that they have been co-raising their children, navigating their lives as a family, within the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Without knowing exactly, I would guess that the modern-day elements of Time were filmed over a couple of weeks, maybe. They are spent in the period immediately leading up to a judge’s decision with respect to Mr. Richardson’s plea. A lot of that time is spent with Fox in an infuriating series of cyclical phone calls with various clerks and administrators. Bradley has established great trust with the Richardson family. They are easy and natural on camera.
It wouldn’t be fair to spoil where the film goes, but there are two keys to its success. The first, as mentioned above, is the frequent focus on joy, on positivity, on the energy created by Black love, Black community, Black organizing in the face of injustice. The Richardsons are indomitable people. They are optimistic people. They do not believe it is a matter of “if” Rob will get out of prison. Invoking the manifestation principle, they consider it a matter of “when.”
They consider it a matter of “when” even in the most defeating circumstances. Fox, and her children, outline that every new year starts with the unshakeable belief that “this is the year.” This is the year it happens; this is the year Rob’s sentence is commuted. In every year, though, there is a point around October when they must adjust to the fact that this is not the year. They have done this over a dozen times now, year after year. Every new year will be greeted this way ’til the work is done.
There are tensions. Of course there are. Fox’s mother, weary, has not quite let go of the mistake that put Fox and Rob in this situation to begin with; forgiveness, but not forgetting. In spite of her unfailingly polite phone manner, Fox eventually rages at the camera at the court system’s foot-dragging. The entire family has become slightly too good at performing charm for those holding unjust power over their lives; watching Fox and Rob’s son do so in a school debate is simultaneously entertaining and deeply sad.
The second key to Time‘s success lets it ascend from “merely” being a modern-day chronicle of one family against the American carceral system (which is what it was designed, and filmed, to be), into something altogether more touching, and elegant. Almost by accident, Fox Rich bequeathed upon her director a box of videotapes, taken while Rob was in prison.
The intent was to give Rob some living memory of the parts of his family’s life that he had missed. Bradley dives into the material with relish. She returns to it again and again throughout the film, building visual relationships with Fox and her sons that stretch across their childhood and adolescence and adulthood, a loose non-chronology that builds great emotional momentum. Again, the film is only 81 minutes long, but feels ageless.
As an unofficial co-director, Fox Rich is no slouch. Some of the handicam footage — all of it rendered in monochrome, as is the modern-day material — is breathtaking, from the first shot. Without planning to, Bradley occasionally parallels framings, finds the same figures with the marks of age (the eventual appearance of Fox’s greying hair is moving), skipping back and forth across decades and digital video formats with the nimbleness of a dancer. This is a beautifully edited picture.
The Criterion Collection has built the Blu-ray off a 4K master and Time looks bright and crisp. In the supplements, director Bradley sits down with critic Hilton Als to outline her approach to narrative art, and how she ended up in the Richardson family’s lives. Her short film, Alone, which preceded and led to Time, is on the disc as well.
I watched the entirety of the disc’s supplemental features as soon as I’d finished the feature, something I never do. (I usually like to sit with the project proper for a bit before delving further into what forces drove it.) Here, I couldn’t help myself; I wanted to linger in the world Bradley had created, and spend more time with Fox and Rob, and their family. This is a moving and memorable portrait.