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Director Garrett Bradley shows the bleak heart of the prison system in ‘Time’

The first Black woman to win the U.S. documentary prize at Sundance is a master of her craft

I’ve watched more films than I can count that center around the cruelties of America’s racist criminal justice system.

I’ve never seen one like Time.

Directed by Garrett Bradley, making her feature documentary debut, Time is a story of devotion, in which one woman, Sibil Fox Richardson, who goes by Fox Rich, becomes an American Sisyphus. Her boulder is one she shares with her husband, Rob Richardson, who is marooned in Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and sentenced to 60 years there for an armed robbery attempt in which no one was hurt. Their fate isn’t simply one of separation, but a fight against a machine that feeds on hopelessness and fatigue, a machine that regards Rob as just another body, another inconvenience, another ID number, rather than a person with family and love and people who need and care about him.

Sibil Fox Richardson, the subject of Time, worked to free her husband Rob from spending 60 years in Louisiana’s Angola prison.

Amazon Studios

That approach to warehousing Black Americans sits deep within the foundation of Angola. The prison, so notorious that the National Museum of African American History and Culture houses one of its guard towers, is located atop a former slave plantation, in a state that paved the transition from slavery to freedom with convict leasing and a convenient loophole in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution.

The first time I watched Time, which begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime, I wasn’t even sure if it was a documentary. I had to double-check — yes, in fact, Bradley won the U.S. documentary directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Yes, she was the first Black woman to do so. Bradley unifies Richardson’s voice with her own — everything is shot in black and white — so that life as Richardson is experiencing it, whether captured through a front-facing camera phone, home video or by Bradley’s own film, feels like something made by Charles Burnett.

It is a documentary that feels as though it exists on a timeline of narrative films: Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, then Time. And no wonder: Bradley studied filmmaking at UCLA, home to the L.A. Rebellion movement of Black filmmakers, which included Burnett, along with Julie Dash and Haile Gerima, who wanted to set themselves apart from mainstream Hollywood in both style and substance. She also directed an episode of Queen Sugar, DuVernay’s series adaptation of the Natalie Baszile novel, and was a second unit director on When They See Us, DuVernay’s limited series about the Exonerated Five.

With the story trained on Richardson, Burnett reveals the toll of Rob’s absence, but also the often-faceless administrative grind against which Richardson is working. We see her, exasperated, multitasking on speakerphone as she’s working, or driving, or mothering her six children, or otherwise living her life, all while the details that could potentially add up to Rob’s freedom get tossed around according to bureaucratic whim.

Whether or not he’ll have a parole hearing: a fight.

The date and time of said hearing: another fight.

Who can be present and offer testimony to the state of Rob’s character: yet another fight.

These fights, these black holes into which time and intimacy and relationships and safety and love and passion and mettle are gobbled up, occur with a frequency that often feels unfathomable, and that, more often than not, go unseen.

This summer, WNBA star Maya Moore made headlines because she put her life as an athlete on hold to free a man, Jonathan Irons, and then she married him. Like Rob, Irons faced a breathtaking multidecade prison sentence. Like Richardson, Moore found that freeing her love from the grip of such a sentence is a full-time job. Cages are the rule, liberty the exception, and it all adds up to millions of “missing” Black men. Men who miss birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and lately, safety from a deadly pandemic.

Like so many films of the L.A. Rebellion, Time refuses to adhere to common rules of narrative structure, and it has no need to do so. Bradley’s mastering of craft is evident in all the ways she strays from convention. Time skips around, because questions such as “What year is it?” and “How long has Rob been imprisoned?” fade away when everything, for 21 years, is an aching, lonely warren of sameness. Within the walls of Angola, time, as dictated by the rules of Black and white, ends up feeling like an eternity.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.