Time screens in the BFI London Film Festival 11-15 October in cinemas around the UK and on BFI Player, and is released on Amazon Prime on 16 October.

In one of an immeasurable number of moving scenes from Garrett Bradley’s tour de force, the son of this emotive documentary’s matriarch observes, “Time is what you make of it, time is loss… time flies.”

As the title suggests, Bradley’s heart-breaking, intimate study of one family’s experience of the American incarceration system is centred on the unforgiving, flowing, inescapable force of time on the optimism of youth, the hope of the future, and the love within an extraordinary Black family.

Bradley’s muse, and the fiery heart of this piece, is Sibil Fox Richardson – known simply as Fox Rich – who lends her voice to tell her own story, which is both folkloric and intimate, and an epic depiction of triumph over adversity.

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Sibil Fox Richardson and her husband Robert

Rich, a businesswoman and self-proclaimed abolitionist, has spent the last 20 years waiting for her husband, Robert, to be released from a 60-year prison sentence for bank robbery – as an accomplice, Rich was allowed to plea-bargain her way to a minimal sentence; an initial offer of a similar deal for him was withdrawn and a maximal sentence imposed, for a first offence which did not involve violence.

Composed of fragments of Rich’s own home videos and intimate, realist footage of daily life – all shaded in monochrome tones – Rich’s story of raising a family of six sons without their father is a poignant personal account of the ramifications of the prison system for Black people in America.

Gabriel Rhodes’s masterful editing creates an elliptical structure, which slips from year to year and moment to moment, avoiding a linear timeline and inhibiting a straightforward cause-and-effect narrative of incarceration. Instead of showing us why and how past events unravel, the audience must piece together Rich’s life through distillations of her grief, loneliness, bliss and everyday intimacy with her children, as life after Robert’s imprisonment goes on yet remains halted.

At times, Rich is youthful and full of joy, the camera close on her beaming smile, daydreaming about when she and her husband will be reunited; in other moments, she is older, a confident and almost regal orator.

Expressing her disdain for the American incarceration system (“Our prison system is nothing more than slavery”) and the power of forging your own path through belief (“My mother told me the American Dream is real”), Rich appears as monarchical, messianic, but still human.

Scenes of particular salience, interspersed throughout the film, take place in her office, where she awaits a judge’s decision on the recent appeal for her husband’s release. The camera does not leave her face as she goes from staring into her phone as though it were a void to pure, unadulterated rage at the futility of her situation, beating her fist against the table in frustration. In contrast, the authorities are depicted as complacent and negligent.

A stripped back yet lush score, from Jamieson Shaw and Edwin Montgomery, uses melodic piano tones, immersing the audience in half-complete family memories, in which Robert’s absence is acutely felt, finishing in a crescendo of strings as the tension builds before the judge’s decision.

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Time (2020)

The portrayal Bradley offers of Black male youth and the resilience and vulnerability of Black womanhood is refreshing and urgently needed during these divided and desperate times. Seeing those who are so often reduced, in the daily influx of mass media, to stereotypes or statistics instead shown as complex human beings, is very welcome – it reminded me of Barry Jenkins’s modern masterpiece Moonlight (2016).

Throughout this carefully curated portrait of the Richardsons, there is a tenderness and innocence in the sons’ testimonies that is undetectable in Rich’s own guarded composure, revealing their perspectives on pain and anguish that have become staples in the family.

Unlike other documentaries on the failings of the American prison system and its detrimental effects on Black communities, such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016), Time homes in on people rarely considered in mainstream discussions about Black men in prison – the family, and in particular the women, who are left behind.

It is not the internal workings of the penitentiary that concern Bradley: in fact, the vast expanses of the Louisiana State Penitentiary are kept at a distance throughout, the camera hovering like a spectre.

The real concern here is the endurance of love – “Life’s Only Valid Expression”, as it’s referred to at one crucial point here – between a woman, her husband, and their children through the decades. Time is a succinct wonder, questioning the cost of ‘justice’ in Black America.

Originally published: 12 October 2020