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What ‘Time’ Can Teach White Viewers About Our Racist Judicial System

Documentarian Garrett Bradley tells the story of the Richardson family, who lost their patriarch for two decades because of an unfairly harsh prison sentence

Movies are a way of measuring time. That might seem obvious — after all, they require a certain amount of physical minutes and hours to watch — but sometimes the phenomenon of time itself is embedded into their narrative. Films such as Hoop Dreams and Boyhood are, in part, a study of how people age and mature — we register the passage of time on their subjects’ changing appearance — but few recent movies have grappled with time’s ineffable complexity as beautifully as Garrett Bradley’s new documentary. 

Time is an evocative title for a movie about America’s unjust penitentiary system. Serving time, jail time, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”: That word “time” comes up a lot when people discuss prison, and it’s certainly a concept that weighs heavily on the film’s Sibil Fox Richardson and her husband Robert. In the late 1990s, they were newly married and excited about going into business together by launching a clothing store in Shreveport, Louisiana. But facing financial pressure, they did something foolish, robbing a local credit union. Their scheme failed, the cops arrested them and Fox served a three-and-a-half year prison sentence. Robert, on the other hand, got 60 years, with no hope of parole. 

Bradley had been thinking about the cruelty of incarceration long before meeting Fox. Her 2017 documentary short Alone, a prizewinner at that year’s Sundance, focused on Aloné Watts, a single mother in New Orleans whose boyfriend has been jailed. Hoping to connect Watts with other women who would understand her dilemma, Bradley met Fox, who was raising her and Robert’s six boys and remained determined to get her husband out of prison, filing appeals, lobbying for his release and speaking out about the challenges facing families impacted by incarceration. 

Impressed by Fox’s commitment to her cause — not to mention that she’s also a successful businesswoman, now running her own car dealership — Bradley decided to devote her next short film to the Richardsons. But after finishing production, Bradley was approached by Fox, who had a surprise for her: Nearly two decades’ worth of MiniDV home movies that she’d shot since her husband began his imprisonment. Maybe they’d be useful to Bradley?

Quickly, the proposed short morphed into a feature-length documentary, which deftly bridges the past and the present, moving back and forth from the MiniDV footage to contemporary sequences shot by Bradley of Fox and her sons. (Time won the U.S. documentary directing prize at this year’s Sundance.) In the film, which opens in theaters on Friday before landing on Amazon Prime Video on October 16th, we see time pass but also rewind and double back on itself. Kids grow up and then return to being little boys, but at the center of it all is Fox, who emerges as the heart of a family that refuses to implode just because of Robert’s prison sentence. 

We follow along with her as she talks to lawyers and others in order to secure his early release, and we watch homemade footage from years past in which she addresses the camera as if it’s her absent husband. But when I spoke to Bradley on the phone earlier this week, she emphasized that Fox’s children didn’t feel like they grew up without a dad: “I think they would say, ‘My father wasn’t with us physically, but he was with us, and I was raised by my mother and my father.’” Time backs up her claim: Among other things, it’s a portrait of a family’s resilience. Bradley also views it as an act of resistance.

But the documentary is also about time itself — how we measure it, how it passes us by, what we do with it. Those might sound like esoteric musings, but Time makes them rivetingly urgent and crushingly concrete. How Fox spends the time she has with her children — and the time she has to free Robert — is critical, as is our recognition of just how long he’s been physically locked away at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola, which has a shameful history of fatal prisoner neglect.

I was grateful to Bradley for spending some time talking about why she made her movie specifically for Black audiences, the importance of Black families documenting their own lives, the tragedy of our “invisible population” and why racism isn’t something she cares to explain to white viewers. 

When Fox gave you those approximately 100 hours of old home movies that she shot, did the footage help give you a sense of who this person was? She’s not a “character” — she’s an actual human being — but I’m wondering if the home movies suggested her narrative arc.

So much of what the archive offers is something that’s very difficult to accomplish when we’re thinking about two-dimensional space. We’re thinking about a screen where we can push a story forward one frame at a time — and how difficult it can be to illustrate the simultaneous nature of how we actually live life. We are composed of all of the moments that happened before the current one — how do you show that? I think the archive does that.

I knew that Fox was a free spirit, an entrepreneur — a hugely joyful, youthful spirit and person. But the woman that I had met when we started filming, 18 years into Robert’s incarceration, didn’t necessarily illustrate that. She was very much, I think, working through a lot of the armor that was both necessary and very much present in her character at that point. So I thought to myself, “Well, if I can at least show why the armor is there, and that it’s necessary, that might help create some entry points for viewers to have compassion and to start to understand her as a full being.” It was very difficult to show the wholeness of who she was and who the family was. The archive shows the revolution and evolution of herself and the family in a way that even a year-and-a-half worth of shooting could never have shown.

With fiction films, actors and writers will talk about giving characters “backstory” — all that background stuff that made the character who they were before the movie began. It seems like the gift Fox gave you — and maybe she wasn’t even aware of it — was that the videos are her origin story. They explain who she was before you met her.

That’s really interesting. I mean, I don’t know if it was as pointed or intentional, but I think that she was keenly aware of what it means to self-document as a form of resistance. Specifically in America, I think Black family archives and Black self-documentation are often the only examples of our existence as we see it in our eyes and our terms.

What I [also] think she was keenly aware of was that part of what got [the family] into this situation was this pursuit of the American dream. But what she was able to flip on its head and find redeeming in this footage was creating images and telling her story on her own terms — which also speaks to this idea of the American dream, of the American family, of what’s wholesome. I absolutely give her credit for knowing what she was doing with that. I think her offering it to me — it’s a good question for her, actually — but I’d like to think that she understood that I would see value in it and know what to do with it and trusted me with it.

This self-documenting by Black families, how important is it when there aren’t a wealth of images of Black life in the media?

Yeah, bell hooks talks about this quite a bit: When you think about the images that exist that talk about Black life — the few that exist [laughs] — they’re often sort of monolithic, narrow, lack nuance or are completely devoid of how we see ourselves. And how we see ourselves is different from one family and individual to the next, which is also the key part of what’s missing in the mainstream perspective. So the family archive, oftentime, is evidence of those things when you can’t go to movies or billboards or posters or commercials or advertisements for those things.

I was so struck by Robert’s 60-year prison sentence without parole. Is that common? It just seems so egregious — how could the Louisiana judicial system justify that?

It’s a good question, and it’s something that we talked a lot about when we were cutting the film. I don’t mean this answer to be dismissive in any kind of way, but I think that part of the decision I had to make as a filmmaker was to say, “Who am I speaking to with this film?” And I’m speaking to people who are Black — Black families who are also entangled in the system and who don’t need that explanation. That explanation, to a certain extent, is that if you’re Black — and especially if you’re in Louisiana and you commit a crime — they will take your life. We are sentenced disproportionately from anybody else in the country — the system is just an offshoot of American slavery. 

When we think about America — and we think about the prison system and this particular story — a lot of the challenge is, How does one prove racism? How does one actually explain that? And I felt that to try to actually explain the sentencing would be to try to explain racism — and as a filmmaker, I wanted to put my energy in other places. Because I knew who I was speaking to, and I knew everybody would know what it was.

I completely get that. Have other white journalists been as surprised as I was about that long prison sentence?


In terms of hearing from white viewers, does our surprise surprise you? Or did you assume that we wouldn’t be able to comprehend that these ridiculously long prison terms happen all the time?

I really appreciate you being so generous with the way you’re phrasing that, because yes, it is absolutely a question that I get from white journalists that I don’t get from journalists of color. And I think that it also comes down to — and I don’t want to speak monolithically for anybody’s universal experience — but there is a fundamental difference [in] how we in American culture interpret facts and rules and laws differently based on who we are. There is a certain sort of order of events and explanation that is privileged — it’s expecting a rationale. And I think most of us live outside of the parameters of what’s rational, unfortunately. 

Fox was also in prison for three and a half years. What was that like for the extended Richardson family to have both parents gone?

That’s where Ms. Peggy, Fox’s mom, really comes in. She stepped in and took care of the boys when both of them were incarcerated. Fox and Robert speak a lot to how grateful they were to her and how lucky they were, because not everybody has a support system that’s willing to do that. 

Time, in my mind, is a sister film to Alone, which is an example of a woman who did not have people who she could go to because of the stigma around incarceration. [Fox and Robert’s] story is unique in terms of the amount of support that was there — certainly even for Robert once he was released. But I would like to think that it’s also universal — and that it’s something that, no matter what angle of the system one finds themselves in terms of level of support, this idea of hope and persistence and holding onto one’s spirit, despite the bureaucracy and attempts to break it down, is there.

When we see Fox in the present, she’s a dynamic, compelling speaker talking to different groups about the evils of our judicial system. But to your point about the stigma of incarceration, I’m curious about her personal journey to get to where she could let go of any sense of shame and own her narrative.

The way that she describes it is that when she was incarcerated, she looked around and found that a lot of women had let their souls be taken over. They had lost their voice and their spirit and their sense of hope. And the first time that she got up to speak in public was when she was in prison. She described it as sort of this revelation of realizing that there is a higher purpose to why she’s in the situation she’s in. God gave her a voice, and she was there to use it. 

Like many great leaders, she found a way to take the specificity of her experience and make it broad and to inspire people to feel connected to it within themselves and to move forward together as a unit. That kind of personal revolution that you’re talking about, that defining moment for her was when she was incarcerated.

Watching Time, what’s striking is that Fox has a full-time job, but getting Robert out of prison is its own full-time job, too. How much of that work took up her daily life?

I can say that when I was with her, it was throughout the day — all day, every day, Monday through Friday. And on the weekends, it still was an entanglement in terms of strategizing, trying to figure out how to move the next phone call forward when the week starts — how to think about a calendar in terms of the holidays as marking points for where you are in the process of parole hearings. There was never a moment where it wasn’t a part of their daily life and their daily experience. 

That’s also why I titled the film Time. I had a difficult time trying to figure out what to call it. I struggled with it a lot. [Laughs] I feel like a lot of my films are just, like, one word because there’s something really open-ended about it. But “time” in particular is an interesting word, because it doesn’t — in my mind, at least — elicit any kind of specific image. It’s very broad and sort of abstract, and yet it also is connected to these ideas of colonialism and control and the clock and capitalism — and then the things that are less tangible of what’s lost.

I also kept thinking of time as something that they’ll never get back. Everything we watch in the film are moments that the whole family could have shared together, but they didn’t because of his incarceration. 

That is absolutely the undercurrent of all of it. We asked ourselves, “What does time mean? What does time mean to Fox at any given moment that we’re with her or she’s with the boys?” When I was working with Gabe Rhodes, the film’s editor, it was really important that we feel as if the story is moving forward — but that we had the freedom to go backwards at the same time. The whole idea is speaking to time that’s lost, but it’s also trying as much as possible to elicit the way in which time actually feels and functions for us in real, daily life — which is that it’s all simultaneous. We can’t separate past experiences from how we feel in that current moment — and therefore the future, you know?

There is something palpable and very concrete about the abstraction of time. It was believing, as a filmmaker, that the abstract and the emotional are just as powerful and just as practical for creating change as the numbers and the statistics — the two have to kind of work together in this world.

Sibil Fox Richardson

You show Fox having to be incredibly polite and deferential when she’s talking on the phone to a clerk for the judge who may be able to get her husband out of prison early. You sense just how much she has to play nice in order to navigate this broken system — she has to get people sympathetic to her cause. 

It also had a very concrete effect if she wasn’t polite or she caused too much trouble or ruffled anyone’s feathers. Robert himself would receive punishment for that. There was a direct connection between her behavior — and her ability to maneuver through the system — and how Robert would be treated behind bars. So I think [she] was diplomatic both for achieving her goals and also the safety of her husband.

In terms of a prison as an actual place, how did being in Angola affect Robert physically? I imagine it can really challenge one’s masculinity. 

That prison is known to be one of the bloodiest prisons in the entire world. Robert and the other men that he was incarcerated with [had to fight] to maintain their dignity and self-respect and vulnerability within a system that was systematically and repeatedly intended to break you down to your core, to disempower you on every level, to become someone who doesn’t have their own mind. 

It goes back to this question of invisibility — the fact that there’s 2.3 million people who are incarcerated, and we can’t see them. They’re an invisible population, a population of missing people. It means that the only evidence of their absence is in the effects of their absence, which is in the family. 

As a filmmaker, that was partially why these stories are so important to tell from this perspective. Even in my attempt of trying to document his physical space — Angola was made up of several different plantations that were populated by enslaved people who were brought from the country of Angola. It was consolidated into a single plantation and then turned into the state penitentiary — there is an unequivocal line and connection between slavery and this current system. [Angola] is 18,000 acres, which even our drone could only capture a fraction of. 

In hip-hop culture, there are so many songs about young Black men who grew up without a father. Robert wanted to be there for his kids, but he couldn’t. How did that affect his six sons and their development?

It goes back to Fox and Robert as a couple — the promise that they made to themselves was that they would stay connected, that they wouldn’t let the system separate them. That unity was a huge part of their resistance. Even though Robert was physically separated from the family, he was there for their birthdays over the phone — he was there for all the important moments of life that happened for each of the boys. If there was a problem in the household, Fox would say, “You’re going to have to answer to your father during visitation.” He was very, very much connected with their lives. 

If you were to ask them what that was like, I think they would say, “My father wasn’t with us physically, but he was with us, and I was raised by my mother and my father.” That is a testament to their form of resistance — and the unfortunate power of the system and what it does. It’s difficult to overcome that — it’s not an easy feat.

Time has a happy ending — he gets out of prison — but, still, that must be a jarring transition for him to be back in the family after so long away. 

I think Robert’s situation was unique from 90 percent of the people who are released. Most receive a few dollars and a bus ticket to go anywhere. Because of the stigma of being incarcerated, a lot of people don’t have families or support networks to go to. Robert had a car pick him up, he had a home to go to with a fridge with food, he had family and he had a job right away. 

I think his reentry process certainly continues — I don’t think it ends, I think he’s still very much in that — but he’s had a somewhat exceptional and different reentry process. I don’t want to speak for him, but I know that him staying connected with those friends that he made who are still incarcerated is incredibly important to him.

Some documentaries leave viewers with a call to action: Visit this website or call your congressperson, etc. Time doesn’t do that — we’ve talked about who the movie is intended for, but in terms of what you want to leave them with, it seems like it’s deeper than other films that just want to give you a directive.

I believe strongly that whether we’re filmmakers or musicians or writers, everything we’re doing that we’re putting out into the world is a contribution to the world that adds up to a sort of melody of ideas and perspectives and solutions. I see this film existing alongside films that are doing those things. The beauty of that is that then we can articulate these issues in different ways and that there doesn’t have to be a singular way to do it. 

I guess I am, in many ways, relying on the collectivity of the ways in which we can tell these stories. I really believe that the way in which we feel is just as meaningful and just as inciting and can inspire people to take action as the facts and the websites do.