Sibil ‘Fox Rich’ Richardson adjusts the camera before standing in front of it, revealing her swollen belly. We learn that she is pregnant with twins. She will name them Justus and Freedom. An activist and mother of six, Rich is the luminous protagonist of Time – a new documentary which tells her story as she fights for the release of her incarcerated husband, Rob. In 1998 he was charged with armed robbery. No one involved in the crime was hurt, but Rob was sentenced to 60 years – essentially a life sentence – without parole.
Directed by Garrett Bradley, Time won the top documentary prize at Sundance this year and was subsequently purchased by Amazon Studios for a reported $5 million. I first saw it back in January; ten months and a global pandemic later, it remains the most moving film I’ve seen this year.“Unfortunately I think that this film could’ve come out from the beginning of time in America and it would’ve been relevant,” Bradley tells VICE from California, over Zoom.
The film is a portrait of a mother’s love and tenacity, braiding two decades worth of Rich’s home videos with Bradley’s contemporary footage of the Rich family’s routines and rituals. Rob’s absence is felt during the kids’ first day of school, on summer afternoons spent by the pool, after shitty days at work; Bradley illustrates the way the system entangles itself into daily life. As Rich herself says, “Our story is the story of 2.3 million other American families”.
New Orleans-based filmmaker Bradley first met Rich in 2016 while she was making Alone, a short documentary for The New York Times. That film followed Aloné Watts, a young Black woman who decides to marry her incarcerated boyfriend Desmond Watson (who had appeared in Bradley’s 2014 debut Below Dreams). “Fox was an older woman, at a different stage in her life, navigating the system in a really different way than Aloné was,” says Bradley. “Not every Black woman in America is dealing with this and managing it the same way.” And so Time was conceived as a companion piece to Alone – a sister film, also shot in black and white, that examined the carceral system from another vantage point.
As Bradley was preparing to edit what she thought would be another short film, Rich presented her with a bag of mini-DV tapes containing something like a hundred hours of home video footage. “I really think she is a filmmaker,” says Bradley. “Her camerawork is amazing, and some of my favourite moments of going through that archive were listening to her give [her sons] Remington and Laurence direction on how to hold the camera, how to frame the camera, and to give them the freedom as young men to see, and to be curious, and to trust their own eye.”
Rich taught her sons how to author their own images, lest that image be misinterpreted or worse, weaponised. “Pay attention,” she tells a six-year-old Remington, in the car en route to his first day of school.
“Why was Fox filming herself, pre-social media or anything? The Black family archive is one of the only forms of representation of ourselves as we understand ourselves,” Bradley explains.
Bradley doesn’t simply present this archive, she interacts with it, her associative editing making fascinating connections between past and present footage. As an activist, Rich has given many public speeches about her experiences within the criminal justice system (she was sentenced with 13.5 years in prison for assisting her husband, but was released within three years after taking a plea bargain). By cutting footage of a young Rich speaking to members of her church with a clip of a public lecture on prison abolition she delivered at Tulane University, Bradley showcases her protagonist’s remarkable gift as an orator. The resonance of those early speeches are also telling of the snail’s pace of positive change.
Footage of Rich as a young woman revealed glimpses of a more vulnerable person, not yet weathered by the passing of time. “When I met Fox, she was 18 years into Robert’s incarceration. There was some very necessary armour that had been created as a result of having to present oneself to parole boards over the course of many years,” says Bradley, referring to scenes in which an infuriated, exhausted Rich sunnily performs perfect patience and polite composure on the phone to an indifferent administrator. Bradley describes this armour as a form of both oppression and resistance.
We see Rich and her children waking up at 2AM and driving to Louisiana State Penitentiary, the maximum security prison where Rob resides. It is part of their routine. They are permitted two, two-hour visits per month. The prison is nicknamed Angola, and sits at the site of multiple former slave plantations. “It’s 18,000 acres of land,” Bradley emphasises. “Even my drone could not capture the magnitude of that. What you see in the film is a fraction of what actually exists.”
An overhead shot of the prison encourages the viewer to think of the carceral system as a form of slavery. Indeed, Rich describes herself as an abolitionist. The film is being released with the context of a re-energised conversation about Black liberation following global protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Bradley agrees that although the conversation around prison abolition has a new energy, it’s not a new issue. “The fight has been ongoing, it’s been over 500 years in the United States of America,” she says. “I think when we have an image of protest, we don’t see it in the family, we don’t see it in the ability to self-document, in the ability to stay connected, in the ability to mother.”
Bradley wasn’t permitted to film inside the prison. “When you can’t document the experience happening within the prison, the family – those serving time on the outside – are in many ways the only evidence of those that are missing,” says Bradley. The triumph of her remarkable film is the way she and collaborator Rich use that absence as an emotional entry point to discuss a problem that is often presented as abstract and faceless. Rich’s personal story is a piercing reminder that behind the invisible problem of mass incarceration there are 2.3 million human faces.
The film’s title, Time, doesn’t elicit any particular image – yet the word allows for a kind of poetry in the telling of the Rich family’s story. Bradley includes unscripted voiceover footage of different members of the family reflecting on its meaning. “Time is influenced by our emotions. It is influenced by our actions,” muses Justus. “Knowing that time was what they were fighting for and against as a family, it felt really important to have their opinions included in that,” Bradley says. While Rob is ‘doing time’ inside, time flies at home; a cut shows Remington as a child and then in a flash, at his graduation. It drags, as Bradley captures the waxing and waning of hope.
During the edit, Rich called Bradley with the date for Rob’s latest parole hearing. Bradley attended, and by sheer force of luck he was granted parole. “There’s no way to anticipate an ending like that. I was certainly trying to manifest with her, I wanted for her what the family wanted, but I think it would be unethical to have some kind of specific outcome [in mind]. When you’re making a documentary, you can’t do that,” she clarifies. Bradley was able to shoot Rob’s release and his intimate reunion with his wife.
The film begins with a montage of home video footage depicting Rich’s two decades without the father of her children. In its cathartic, emotionally-charged conclusion, that footage is reversed. Time is lost, and then, in the film’s miraculous ending, it is recovered.
‘Time’ will be released on the 16th of October.