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‘Time’ Review: A Poignant and Monumental Portrait of Mass Incarceration in America

Sundance: A woman's 20-year fight to free her husband is captured on home video and cut together into a profoundly moving story of hope.

A still from Time by Ursula Garrett Bradley, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Time”

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On its surface, Garrett Bradley’s “Time” asks a simple question: How can you convey the full length of 21 years in the span of a single film, let alone a documentary that runs just 81 minutes? And from its degraded opening images — borrowed from the first of a thousand video messages that a black Louisiana woman named Sibil Fox Richardson (aka “Fox Rich”) recorded for her husband as she waited for him to be released from the State Penitentiary — offers a similarly simple answer: You don’t measure it in length, but rather in loss.

You measure time in absence. In the undertows of anger that swirl under the water and threaten to sweep you out to sea. In the punitive aftertaste of forcing six boys to grow up without a father. In the way that their mother, a determined but soft-spoken 27-year-old when she made that initial tape, has hardened into a social justice warrior of such indomitable strength that she could single-handedly restore that term to the power it implies. You don’t think of time as a bridge that stretches between past and future, but as the boundless present that flows below; infinite along one axis, but so narrow along the other that you can barely see the distance between shores.

Swirled together from 18 years’ worth of MiniDV tapes (in addition to the newer, more pristine footage the filmmaker shot of Fox and her family before that incredible treasure trove of home video was dumped in her lap), Bradley’s monumental and enormously moving “Time” doesn’t juxtapose the pain of yesterday against the hope of tomorrow so much as it insists upon a perpetual now. And while the documentary never reduces its subjects to mere symbols of the oppression they represent — the film couldn’t be more personal, and it builds to a moment of such unvarnished intimacy that you can hardly believe what you’re watching — Bradley’s Tralfamadorian editing flattens time in a way that contextualizes mass incarceration on the largest of continuums. “Time” in name and timeless in style, this liquid history streams centuries of subjugation into a single confluence of dehumanization until black slavery and the prison-industrial complex become two separate brooks that feed into the same river.

If only Fox hadn’t waded into those waters. The trouble started in September 1997, when an investor in the hip-hop clothing store that she and Rob were opening together suddenly pulled out at the last second. Desperate and unmoored, the couple hatched a costly plan: Fox would act as a getaway driver while Rob and his nephew robbed a branch of the Shreveport Credit Union. It didn’t go well. No money was stolen, and the culprits were all first-time offenders, but — due to a sordid arrangement of plea bargains and miscellaneous other pieces of bureaucracy-related bullshit — Fox was sentenced to 19 years, and her husband 65. She served three and then went home to their children; by the time Bradley started filming, Rob was already nearing two decades behind bars.

As the song goes: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” But who could do that time (least of all for that crime)? And who takes stock of what that time does to us? Shown in black-and-white and set to a rolling score that largely consists of piano tracks licensed from an Ethiopian nun who Bradley found on YouTube (her name is Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, she’s 96 years old, and the melodic blues music she wrote for an orphanage in 1968 sounds like a pebble skipping along the surface of the entire 20th century), “Time” ricochets back and forth across the years until everything seems to be happening at once and always. One moment, Fox is pregnant with twins; the next, Freedom and Justus are taking junior high school by storm; the next, they’re five years old and acting their age on the front lawn. It’s never “then,” always “now.”

The change is somehow even more pronounced in their tireless mother, who evolves into a self-described “abolitionist.” Fighting to eke a measure of humanity from a system that shouldn’t have the power to deny it from people in the first place, Fox molds herself into an undeniable force of nature — a powerhouse of black feminist energy. “Regretful but not embarrassed,” she speaks against injustice, she raises six extremely impressive children, and she maintains hope in the face of indifference. Without betraying any part of herself, Fox also becomes the kind of unfailingly polite black woman who a white-run institution might deign to recognize; all “if it’s not asking too much” and “yes ma’am” when calling to see if a judge’s secretary might be so kind as to see if her non-violent husband might ever be allowed to hug his children.

In one moment of superhuman strength, Fox ends a phone call by saying “thank you so much for your time” without spitting blood. Her anger seldom boils to the surface, but Bradley is there to see it when it does, as the contrast between the pristine stillness of the professional footage and the diaristic jangle of Fox’s home videos speaks to the performative nature of her fight. These two energies often merge in spectacular fashion, such as the scene where Fox confidently directs and stars in a commercial for her auto business, negotiating between public and private personas in a way that makes clear that her growth is in the service of an intractable self-identity; the prison system wants to separate black families at the seams, but Fox refuses to let time fray the integrity of her relationship with her husband (or of her sons’ relationship to their father).

In that sense, Fox’s home videos — and the film that Bradley has made from them — feel like an act of self-preservation in the face of a racist power structure that doesn’t want certain stories to be told. They’re both a means of recording moments for Rob to watch, and also a means of preserving a kind of stasis. The question of “when are we” rarely seems relevant; the Richardsons may not be together, but the distance between them never grows.

If the flat circularity of the film’s chronology can sometimes mute its emotional impact, that’s because virtually every scene is moving in its own way. Fox is a riveting character — vulnerable when she’s alone and voracious when she has an audience — and Bradley’s framework respects her resilience. There are a few broadly tender flashpoints (such as Fox’s youngest son hovering near her like a shadow so he can hear his dad’s voice over the phone), but everything on screen is vested in lived reality. While gripping from start to finish, there isn’t a minute of “Time” that feels engineered for our entertainment. And though Bradley’s grounded footage can seem at odds with Fox’s home videos — like ice floes dropped into a rushing spring — they ultimately melt together into the film’s most profound moments of enduring love. Rob’s incarceration suggests that time isn’t measured by what changes, but rather by what doesn’t. And Fox’s struggle to free him suggests that perhaps time isn’t measured by what’s lost, but rather by what isn’t.

Grade: A-

“Time” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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