By Josh Silva
Graphic By Jane Wilson
It begins as it ends, with a montage of home video from the days when recording daily life was still a novelty, and not commonplace. We first see Fox Rich, the protagonist of Garrett Bradley’s 2020 documentary Time, through her proto-vlogs as she plays with her children, drives them around, and confesses to the camera about the film’s central conflict: the incarceration of her husband, Rob Richardson.
The couple, both African-American and living in New Orleans, were torn apart when he was sentenced to 60 years in prison for bank robbery. It is briefly mentioned that he had the opportunity to take a plea bargain, but did not. This detail, and many others, are not elaborated on. Bradley is less interested in the facts than in the psychological weight of having a loved one ripped away by a vicious system, and the endlessly deferred promise of reunion, making for a quietly heartbreaking masterpiece.
Time toggles freely between Fox Rich’s older home movies and Garret Bradley’s new, crisp footage of Rich still fighting her battles, but both are in black and white. We see her as she speaks to crowds about her fight and advocates for criminal justice reform, calling herself an abolitionist for the modern-day form of slavery. These speeches reach towards catharsis for her, strongly contrasting the simmering pain that underlies the many shots of her just…waiting. One of these scenes, in which she’s on hold to the judge’s office, captures the film in a microcosm. The passage, or stagnation of time, is felt not through montage, but through holding on three static closeups (two of her, one of her son). Bradley’s economy of shots communicates the tedium of Rich’s battle. In another scene of her on a phone call, her son fiddles with the blinds, a detail so perfectly placed it may have been staged, but that does not undermine the truth of it. Bradley’s style is calculated but not intrusive, and this style leaves “no shot wasted” feeling in the film’s brisk 81 minute runtime. It is, perhaps, a little too brisk; at times I wanted to see more characterization of the Rich family. But it is the waiting which characterizes them; their life is defined not by broad changes, but by the one central element which is kept from changing.
This delayed payoff accumulates for 70 minutes until the pain is finally released in a joyous crescendo. The film’s beautiful ending, which will likely leave many in tears, is the only plot development to be seen firsthand. By then, the viewer has been so accustomed to lack of change that the catharsis cannot fully be processed, to say nothing of how Fox Rich feels. The film ends with the same shots that opened it playing in reverse. This does not mean that those memories are forgotten or erased, but that they are finally free to become memories, rather than a constant, chaining present.
Perhaps Time’s strongest quality is its capturing of systemic injustice through personal experience. Bradley trusts her audience’s intelligence enough not to resort to didacticism. While thousands of other black people experience this same oppression at the hands of America’s draconian prison industry, Bradley does not define them with a number. The statistics, as horrifying as they are, cannot linger the same way the sorrow in Rich’s face does as her phone call with her husband is cut short. Only through specificity can there be universality.
James Baldwin perfectly summarized the cruelty of waiting and its innateness in the Black American experience when he said, “You always told me it takes time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brother’s and my sister’s time, my niece’s and my nephew’s time. How much time do you want for your progress?” Early in the film Rich states that she believes in the American dream, a bitter irony considering that the framers of that dream built their success and their country on slavery, and her husband’s plight is merely that same oppression with a new face. But it is her belief that keeps her sane through the interminable waiting. Though she and her husband cannot regain their stolen years, they are now freer than ever before to shape their own present.