The idea that the mass incarceration of African Americans is in effect a modern form of slavery has been explored in several powerful documentaries, ranging from Sam Pollard’s 2012 Slavery by Another Name (from Douglas A Blackmon’s book) to Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated 13th (2016). But while others have tended to concentrate on statistics, history and politics, director Garrett Bradley goes the other way in her film Time, conjuring an almost expressionist account of the experiences of a family torn apart by prison, examining the toll that jail time takes on those outside the prison walls.
Despite headlines at the time, there was little Bonnie and Clyde glamour to the bank robbery that landed Fox Rich (AKA Sibil Fox Richardson) and her husband, Robert, in prison in the late 90s. Both accepted responsibility for the crime, an out-of-character reaction to the collapse of a business on which they had pinned all their hopes. Yet while Fox took a plea deal and served three-and-a-half years, Robert fell foul of terrible legal advice and wound up sentenced to 60 years without parole.
Such legal details, however, are not the focus of this extraordinarily intimate portrait of the Rich family, in which Bradley, who won the directing award in the US documentary category at Sundance, moves back and forth through two decades of separation, drawing on an extensive archive of home-movie footage that Fox created to show Robert the life he was missing inside, and that was waiting for him when he got out, something she never doubted would happen.
Through these videos, which are beautifully interwoven by editor Gabriel Rhodes with more recent footage (all rendered in strangely cinematic black and white), we watch young twins Freedom and Justus grow from boys to men, inspired by their mother, who somehow juggled raising six sons with becoming a businesswoman, an activist and a powerful advocate for prison reform.
Eschewing explanatory title cards or on-screen text, Bradley creates a tone poem that ebbs and flows in hypnotically lyrical style, dexterously shuffling images from disparate periods to create something unified and immersive. Through this time-shifting montage, we are encouraged to share in the experiences of the indomitable woman whom Bradley met while making the 2017 New York Times Op-Docs episode Alone, a stylistically similar short film she considers the “sister” to this feature. “This system breaks you apart,” Fox says in Alone. “It is designed, just like slavery, to tear you apart.” Yet in Time it’s an almost superhuman sense of togetherness that rings through, a refusal to bow down, to be broken or defeated.
For all its urgent verisimilitude, there are moments when Bradley’s documentary seems closer to a drama, not least in a scene of remarkable backseat intimacy, sensitively shot in slow-mo by Nisa East, one of three credited cinematographers. There’s even a self-reflexive sequence of Fox taping a promo for her car dealership that teases away at the boundaries of performance and personality. But such playfulness never obscures the truth of Bradley’s vision or the honesty with which Rich confronts her own circumstances.
Worth noting too is the superb use of piano music by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, the subject of Kate Molleson’s 2017 BBC Radio 4 doc The Honky Tonk Nun, which ripples with bluesy ease throughout the movie, combining the same air of soulfulness and spirituality that lies at the heart of Bradley’s film.