Time is not the type of documentary that could have been directed by anyone. Sure, it could have. Most documentaries are exactly that, and to be fair there’s something to be said for an unobtrusive, understated approach to nonfiction filmmaking. Here, the subject matter is so relevant and the central “character” is so compelling that the documentarian in the director’s chair could simply have flicked the camera on and pointed it at Fox. Time would likely still be an essential watch. But Garrett Bradley, in directing only her second feature, does so much more in bringing Fox and Rob Richardson to the screen.
After a robbery they committed in desperation in the 1990s, wife and husband Fox and Rob are separated when Rob is sentenced to 60 years — without parole — for the crime. They already had one child at the time of Rob’s incarceration, and Fox was pregnant with twins at the time. In the ensuing twenty years, Fox not only raises her boys and makes a career of speaking publicly about her experience, but fights tirelessly to secure Rob’s release. Throughout it all, Fox maintains a video diary for her husband, charting the growth of their children and the struggle for their family’s reunification over two long decades.
Garrett Bradley’s work may have reached you before if you’ve seen When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five miniseries on Netflix, on which Bradley served as Second Unit Director. That series — apart from being one of the most vital pieces of film art to come out of 2019 — is akin to Time in that it reveals how rigged the judiciary system is against black men. When They See Us follows innocent black men, but the system is no less harsh for their lack of culpability. With Time, the comparison hits like a punch to the gut: even when a black man is, by his own admission, guilty of the crime for which he’s imprisoned, the story of his incarceration is still inescapably a tragedy wherein the American prison system persecutes him unfairly. Unfair doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Fox’s mother, who admits that she never had the opportunity to really know her daughter’s husband, offers the most explicit perspective on his appallingly long sentence. Had Rob accepted the 12-year plea bargain, she surmises, he would’ve been let off much easier. Doing so would have been tantamount to submission — putting himself “on the ground”, as Fox’s mother puts it — in front of the white judge, the white jury, the white system. She urged Fox to jettison her pride during the trial, to tone down her appearance, to put herself on the ground. Rob, while pleading guilty, stood up for himself by not accepting the plea, and thus did his pride appear more the reason to lock him away than his actual crime.
A (white) lawyer says much the same during preparation for Robert’s parole hearing years later, in a discussion of how the family should present themselves: “They resent that you’re coming from a place of power.” As in When They See Us, it doesn’t take long for it to become gallingly apparent that Rob’s sentence has little to do with his crime at all. His mountainous term, like that imposed upon the inordinate number of black men presently occupying more than 1/3 of the entire U.S. prison system, is another concerted perversion of justice against a specific community in what is supposed to be America.
Lots of definitions of “time” are vocalized by the Richardson family throughout Bradley’s film. Time is looking at old photos of your toddlers, then looking up to see they have beards. Time is what you make of it, time is lost, time can be affected by your actions, your emotions. The prison has an orchard that was mere saplings when Robert first arrived. But again, Bradley’s engagement with her subject matter is more than mere observance. Certain flourishes define time in and of themselves: a lengthy, static shot of Fox on hold with the local court that feels like an eternity; resisting the urge to cut over to the prison to interview Rob, emphasizing his absence for Fox and their boys; a beautiful, time-reversing series of final moments.
Chief among these unspoken ruminations on time is that time is repetitive. Over and over again we sit with Fox as she calls local courts and advocacy groups, sitting on hold, being snubbed or ignored, only to gather herself up to do it all over again the next day. Rob’s story, on the whole, is a repetition of the story of so many black men in America. Time‘s secret power is in these unspoken realizations, and Bradley’s brilliance is to recognize that Time demands more than a fly on the wall. Time demands we be a part of the Richardson family, allowing us into private moments Fox endured over twenty hard years, over and over and over again. With more and more definitions of time making their way into the public eye this year — time has come, now is the time, #TimesUp — Time can play an important part in redefining an era of injustice, and redefining it forever.
Time is streaming on Amazon Prime October 16th.