Garrett Bradley’s Time is many things. It’s a portrait of perseverance and faith amidst loss; a penetrating look at the casual cruelty of our criminal justice system and the lives stolen through mass incarceration; a paean to the resilience of family and the radical power of love; and a memory artifact of one woman’s yearning to be reunited with her soulmate. A co-production of The New York Times’ Op-Docs in partnership with Amazon (which picked up the film’s distribution after its Sundance premiere earlier this year), Time lyrically embodies the sweeping temporal scale of its title, as it tells the 21-year story of Ms. Sibil Fox Richardson (“Fox Rich” as she’s called), her husband Robert, and their six children—a family devastated by the modern day slavery that is our nation’s prison industrial system. Patriarch Robert was sentenced to 60 years to life without the possibility of parole following a crime he and Fox Rich committed out of financial desperation (Fox Rich was released after serving a couple of years). Upon returning home, and over the course of the following two decades, Fox Rich documents with devotional consistency her life as a single mother, and her home videos become confessional love letters to her husband, capturing for posterity all their missed moments.
Time is a sensorial experience that fuses an arresting black and white visual palette and inspired dioramic exterior shots, with a melodic jazz-blues score and the rich timbre of voice-over narrations (provided by Fox Rich and her sons) to deliver a harmonized mosaic of personal growth, absence, and longing—a literal sense memory conveyed through the neorealist (in its spare and lived-in black and white imagery), aesthetic minimalism of a postcard shifting through time, as illustrated through the film’s pulsating nostalgia.
With her striking eyes, expressive features, and the lyrical drip of her New Orleans cadence, Fox Rich commands a magnetic presence that was made for the camera. Her stoicism and humor belie a deeply familiar well of longing and suffering, and there’s a soulful poeticism to the way she keeps her pain at bay through Southern gentility, humble pleasantries, and an appreciation for life’s small joys (most often expressed through the love for her children and their accomplishments)—even when bureaucratic apathy tests her patience and her good will. Yet these frustrations do peek through from time to time, most memorably during the moments she’s on hold with appeals officers, her eyes darting to the side in contemplative, anguished thought. In one spellbinding scene, Fox Rich’s resolve is briefly, slowly, sidelined in real time when she finally reacts to the prolonged, callous incompetence of the civil servants in charge of Robert’s appeal with a graceful fury that’s palpable and riveting. A singularly mesmerizing subject, Fox Rich brings a remarkably vulnerable humanity to the system’s dehumanizing indifference towards Black suffering, and the systematic violation of Black communities perpetrated by the carceral state.
To that end, Fox Rich wields her oratory gifts as a shield and a mechanism for survival, and her code-switching becomes a vehicle to puncture the system’s faceless indifference. Every time she speaks feels like spoken word poetry; from her public speaking to her everyday conversations, her communication skills disarm those working within the system. She has imprinted these vital skills unto her sons as well. One of them, an adolescent aspiring for public office, comports himself with a politician’s vocal and physical rhythms that’s uncanny in its precision. The power of this family’s voice is felt in deeply resonant ways; in a country that tries so hard to stifle Black expression and Black pain, there’s a profound liberation to be found in the spoken word, and in the sharing of one’s story.
This documentary—which weaves Fox Rich’s home videos with present-day footage of her speaking engagements and intimate family moments—understands that time isn’t necessarily a seamless progression, so rather than present it as a linear flow, Bradley captures its jagged, repetitious and elliptical nature. Structurally, the film jumps back and forth, with later scenes circling back to the same earlier moments of newlywed affection and the chaotic energy of young parenthood. It’s through this temporal tug and pull, ebb and flow, that Bradley presents time and memory as fragmented and scattered mirror images of each other: the former’s compression and the latter’s ephemerality going hand in hand as unreliable, subjective projections of lived experience, in all its ecstasy and trauma.
I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Bradley via phone in the lead-up to the film’s Amazon Prime release, where we discussed the film’s music, issues of erasure and invisibility, and her documentary’s unforgettable subject.
NOTEBOOK: To start, I want to thank you for this incredibly wrenching film, for the deeply moving journey you take us on. This documentary is very much a flowing mosaic of time and an artifact of memory, and I was curious how your use of music contributes to this sense of nostalgia, with its blues, classical and jazz tones?
GARRETT BRADLEY: Thank you for that. “Nostalgia,” that’s interesting.
NOTEBOOK: By that I mean, this kind of wistful longing for something that’s been ripped from you. The black and white cinematography also adds to this nostalgic neorealism.
BRADLEY: Yeah, so part of the reason why I included Emahoy’s music in this—on the one hand, when we were in the process of editing, I was actually listening to a lot of Neil Young [chuckles], a lot of electric guitar and things that might seem random but I thought actually felt really beautiful together, and when Emahoy’s music popped up on a YouTube algorithm, I was immediately struck by the potential for each one of the compositions to feel as though they were moving forward, but also backwards in time—that we were sort of oscillating between melody, between pace, and between scale—and that’s essentially what we were also doing visually with the film, and narratively speaking as well. So it felt like a really beautiful coupling in that way. But it wasn’t until I started to learn about Emahoy and her story that I think it felt all the more appropriate. She’s a 96-year-old Ethiopian nun, she’s still alive, and she came from a wealthy family before becoming a prisoner of war. She’s classically trained in Western music, had an opportunity to be a well-celebrated prodigal pianist, and instead decided to go back to Ethiopia and become a nun, and this one recording that was made in 1963 for the purpose of raising money for an orphanage really stood out to me, and I ended up using it. What sealed the deal was this prospect of bringing these two women together in time and in space. So there were both formal, and theoretical things that I loved about being able to include her work here.
NOTEBOOK: This word gets overused in film discussions, but that union between image and sound truly felt transcendent and soulful. Speaking of soulful, Sibil Fox Rich has an incredibly striking presence—there’s something deeply arresting about her expressive face and eyes. I had read an earlier interview you did in which you discussed having to thread that needle between illuminating her exceptional singularity as a person with the universality and accessibility of her story. Can you talk about navigating that?
BRADLEY: First and foremost, I believe that all of us are singular and exceptional human beings. We don’t all have the benefit of having a camera following us around to prove that, or even feel comfortable with that quite frankly. I think that part of what helped us strike that important balance was going back to the intention of the film itself. What is it that we wanted to do with this film? What would it offer to people seeing it? Those are questions that I ask everybody before I embark on a project with them, you know? And for Fox and her family, their answer was well, our story is the story of 2.3 million American families and we feel that our story will offer hope. So my job, then, was to translate that into a sort of filmic and visual space and to negotiate exactly those things you just described. And I think the way in which we were able to do that was by leaning into three different things: love, the ability to hold on to one’s sense of individuality amidst the system, and the family’s ability to stay together and remain unified over the course of 21 years. Those are three seemingly mundane and everyday, but incredibly powerful, forms of resistance, and they’re something that anyone can do or work towards, against all odds. And so I think that leaning into the ways in which the family worked together, is what also helped not only illustrate and celebrate the strength that existed, but also make it something that was accessible to everybody.
NOTEBOOK: Your film uses this family’s very intimate and personal story to present a rather scathing indictment on modern day slavery. Can you talk about your creative decision to largely eschew—aside from a couple of scenes in which Fox Rich meets with lawyers—any of the legal proceedings that transpired while she was trying to secure her husband’s release, or for that matter, your choice to not really focus on Robert as a subject, but instead make the film about Fox Rich and her children? As much as this film is about love and resilience, it’s also about absence, and it’s that absence that I think is the most profoundly felt throughout, as the real human toll of this unjust system. How does focusing on Fox Rich drive home this sense of absence, and the void left in one’s heart?
BRADLEY: Yes, thank you for that. I think that part of what we are seeing particularly in 2020 when we consider the uprisings and the unprecedented amount of white allyship and the role that technology and documentation, optics and visibility on police brutality have played in those things—all of these things reinforce, or I should say illuminate, the lack of optics and visual proof of 2.3 million people being incarcerated. So in many cases the only evidence of what’s happening is in the family, is with those who are serving time on the outside. It was a choice for me because as a filmmaker I am personally invested in the effects, just as I am in the facts. But it also, unfortunately, was a practicality, it was also an offshoot and a marking of that very erasure that you’re talking about, and I think that the challenge for us as filmmakers—or the challenge for me as a filmmaker—was to try to illustrate that without reinforcing it. How do you illustrate invisibility and erasure without reinforcing it within the work itself? I’d like to think that Robert has a very strong presence in each one of the scenes, even if he’s not physically present, and that a lot of that has to once again do with the family’s resistance, the family’s ability to stay united despite 21 years of separation.