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'Time' after Time: Garrett Bradley's Lyrical Meditation on the Toll of Incarceration

By Ashley Omoma

From Garrett Bradley's 'Time.' Courtesy of Amazon Studios

There is not a moment when Garrett Bradley’s Time could not be considered timeless. But the fact that this story is as relevant today is a tragic reminder of what hasn’t changed in this country and around the world despite the distance of centuries. 

Whether it be the slow arc of racial progress or the countdown towards an imagined freedom, for Black people there exists a particular terror of time that has its beginnings in slavery, a system that Bradley’s film makes clear is not confined to the past; it persists in the present.

That revelation is not solely what makes Time the powerhouse that it is; it is its ability to articulate the excruciating loss of time, love and family—stolen by a form of slavery called mass incarceration. Time offers a new entry point to interrogate these systems— “From a place of love,” Bradley suggests, “and not necessarily numbers and statistics, which are equally as important, but remain only one angle from which we can speak about the issue.”

Who better to help refocus the impact incarceration brings to love, faith and family than the loving Fox Rich and her family? 

Floating between the past and present, Time revolves around the aftermath of a singular event: a robbery. Roughly 20 years earlier, Fox and her husband Robert were young and in love, with kids and twins on the way, and were struggling to reach their piece of the American dream—a promise of prosperity Fox’s mother had passed down to her. 

But rather than focusing on the details of the event that would lead Fox to serve three years in prison and have Robert sentenced to 60, Time orients itself in the present. Fox is 15 years out of prison and is raising her five boys and running a car dealership. Now she is a community leader and self-proclaimed abolitionist working to get her husband home and finally complete their family. 

And just like they’ve been for the past 20 years, we too are at the mercy of time as we hope—but are not necessarily hopeful—that Robert will be released. 

Time expands the discussion of carceral injustice, where love and family take center stage. For Bradley, beginning here allows for new solutions and healing possibilities. 

Bradley’s film does not position its antagonist as a bad cop, the inhumane conditions of a prison, or a heartless judge. By moving us away from a corps of villains, we are forced to grapple with the intangible aspects of a system that fall short of justice. 

This, coupled with the choice to not center the film around the crime, deters the audience from legitimizing Fox and Robert’s deserved freedom through the binary of right and wrong created by the carceral justice system and instead allows the tables to turn. Now the system is having to legitimize itself as humane before the audience and throughout Time, it can’t and arguably it never could.

Dehumanization has always been necessary for slavery to persist. And when slavery was reconstituted as incarceration, it rationalized such dehumanization with the belief, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” From this vantage point, we cannot question if this is even a fair trade because the prison system presents itself as the only necessary and legitimate solution for crime.

Fox helps break this illusion as we witness her growth from a joyous young mother who made a mistake, to a determined abolitionist helping others heal from their mistakes. It is an evolution rooted in her desire to bring together her family and other families separated by the system. It is an evolution powered by love and anger. 

For Bradey, it was important to include that personal evolution. “We all make mistakes—and we have to fess up to them. And once that’s done, the question that really should be posed to the unjust of America is, Now what? What is quantifiable to a crime? What is the purpose of extended punishment if the lesson has been learned?”

To Bradley, the court’s reluctance to release Robert is telling that the system “is actually not interested in recovery or making amends or fixing a problem. It’s about much bigger things; it’s business.” 

Bradley uses time, the enormity of Robert’s sentence and the Rich family’s 20-year long yearning for Robert’s return to explore these ideas and in doing so, she shows how visceral this pain of time truly is. 

We feel it as Fox waits patiently on the phone for an update about her husband's release, only to hear that the ruling hasn’t been typed yet. We feel it as Fox’s little boys transform into young men in the absence of their father. The whip of time is a reminder of what’s irredeemably lost. It is screaming out to a master that never listens for mercy. 

Those familiar with the pain of family separation know that with enough time, it dulls, folding itself into your everyday life as if it was always there. But like how the murders of Breyonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and many others have forced the world to feel the sharpness of that pain again, Bradley’s Time intensifies that dullness until change is demanded.

Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s film 13th gave us evidence of slavery reformed, but the belief that slavery exists only in memory still persists. Perhaps because even toying with the alternative, the idea that we too are alive during a time marked by what is only a reformation of slavery would be too horrifying. Or worse, we would realize we weren’t horrified enough. 

Yet the New Orleans piano music that plays over the film’s beautiful, dreamlike black-and-white images as Fox recounts her time in prison teleports us back in time while also making the point that no such travel is necessary as some things haven’t changed. It’s “just like slavery times” Fox’s mother, Peggy, says in the film.  

And just as it was then, Time reminds us of the necessity of a non-romanticized and even practical version of love, faith and community as an answer to what gets us to freedom, what gets us through it all. Because before these systems fall for the 2.3 million and more families impacted by incarceration, as Fox says in the film’s last lines, “through it all is how we get there.”

Documentary caught up with Garrett Bradley by phone. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

DOCUMENTARY: How did you come to tell this story? What were you setting out to do when you started?

GARRETT BRADLEY: Every project I’ve worked on did not start off with the intention of it being a singular film. A lot of the time it came from an inquiry, a thought, an observation that was a part of my immediate community and the people that I knew and the people that they knew. 

Time actually started with a short film, a 13-minute [New York Times] Op-Doc called Alone. And that film started actually back in 2014 with my first feature-length film, Below Dreams, which premiered at Tribeca in 2014.

Desmond was an actor in the film. I became very close with him and even closer with his partner, Aloné. Around 2016, Desmond was arrested for a nonviolent offense. He was sitting in a private prison for about a year and a half awaiting trial, which is unconstitutional; Aloné became a single mother overnight and really didn’t have many people to turn to in terms of how to move forward with her life in limbo.

So, that was the impetus for making that project, and part of the initial concept was to actually connect her with other women and facilitate cross-generational conversations so that she could find a support system of how to make decisions moving forward. I did a Google search and found an organization called FFLIC, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, and Gina Womack, the director and cofounder, picked up the phone and said, “Well, the first person that you need to talk to is Fox Rich.”

Fox is actually in Alone. She makes a really vivid connection between slavery and our current present industrial complex. I got to know her story in the process of facilitating these conversations with herself and Aloné, who are coming from very different generations. Fox, at that point, had been navigating the system for upwards of 18 to 19 years, whereas Aloné was just at the beginning of that.

I wanted to make a follow-up film as a way of just saying, The conversation doesn’t stop with this one film; it doesn’t stop with this one woman’s experience. There’s many experiences, many ways in which we’re maneuvering through this reality and here’s two of them. I actually think that many, many films will be made out of this because women are maneuvering through it and holding their families together across the country every day in a variety of distinct ways.

From Garrett Bradley's 'Time.' Courtesy of Amazon Studios

D: You’ve spent so much time with the family. I’m wondering, Did you feel that pain while you were working on this film and what was the process for you to create this piece of work? How were you processing your emotions as you were doing this work?

GB: I don’t even know if it’s possible to make documentaries and not be emotionally invested in the well-being and care of the people that you are working with. A part of that was, I never considered Fox or the family to be subjects of a film; they were collaborators. I know that that opens up a can of worms when we talk about documentary filmmaking, journalism and the rules that are put in place to ensure authenticity or objectivity, so I was on that emotional journey with them as well.

I think there was an unspoken contract that we had made with each other, which was trust. What was that trust about? It was that I was going to show, in an accurate way, what they were going through. I think that the visibility of that fight and that pain was a soothing element to a lot of that injustice.

There has to be that trust there and we didn’t know what was going to happen and I think also as a filmmaker you’re trying to decide, When do I stop filming? He has a 60-year sentence. So, I tried as much as possible to also create parameters for myself around what was the most valuable in terms of what was being captured. I think that that boils down to, Well, what is it that you’re trying to say? Why are you making this film? That was very much expanding the conversation, diversifying the experience for people so that they understood it. 

D: So you didn’t really know what would happen if he was even going to get out while you were filming? There was no indication of him being let out?

GB: We went through many, many hearings and meetings. A lot of emotional back and forth. Even though Fox and the boys felt like that last parole hearing did feel different, there’s no promise at all. 

Part of the power with the family was the practice of manifestation and speaking things into existence. Part of what I find so incredible about Fox is that she never doubted herself, and that is not to be taken lightly because doubt is a human emotion. It’s what we express a lot of the time through the day. It’s what informs us about the decisions that we make. So, for a woman to not even lean into that is incredible.

I think that informed the emotionality and created somewhat of a structure for going into those parole hearings. It probably had a lot to do with being strong for her son and being sensitive to the back and forth that they were also forced into emotionally with that.

D: Thinking about these systems through this intergenerational lens, can you talk more about this piece of the film and how you were thinking through it?

GB: That’s where the healing part comes in. Hopefully this film is functioning for different people in a variety of different ways. But my primary interest was for it to be a healing tool for us and for those that are most affected directly by these issues. Part of that healing process is acknowledging the intergenerational difference. That was something that I was attempting to explore with Aloné as well and how her mother, on one hand, would come across maybe as unsupportive of her daughter, but at a deeper, more compassionate look, it was actually her mother coming from a place of working as hard as she possibly could to keep her child out of the pain of incarceration and of the system, and still somehow her daughter finding a way to be entangled in it and the pain that caused her as a mother.

From the daughter’s point of view that feeling like a lack of support or feeling like rejection and then from the next generation from Fox’s children’s point of view, it was somehow separate from both of those things and really about the future, about putting it on an institutional level. That, of course, would not be possible had those other previous generations not been there before, but our grandparents didn’t have the same kind of support to make those institutional changes in the same kind of way.

There has been some progress made that allows the current generation to be fighting on these new unprecedented levels, and I think that will continue to happen. But I’m glad you brought that up because it’s a huge part of the internal conversation that we have amongst each other, and it’s also part of what isolates us from talking about really difficult things within our community as well and within our families. Part of the poison of the prison system is that it also systematically separates us from each other. It pits us against one another and puts blame in places that are misplaced.

Ms. Peggy’s point of view was one very much coming from her experience in the South, but she was also incredibly loving and supportive of her daughter. But her way of processing the pain of what was happening was externally different, obviously, than the way in which Fox is processing it and certainly the way that the kids were. I just want to make sure that that’s in there because we don’t want to place blame on the older generation who articulate it and express it in a different way.

D: You have Sibil and her kids talking about time and giving definitions of what time feels like; can I ask you what question that was?

GB: I just had them meditate on the meaning of time. I just said, tell me what does time mean to you in all of its different iterations.

D: Can I ask that question back to you?

GB: I guess there’s two different sets of time. There’s the colonization of time, which is externalization of it, which is the clock and the way in which that is used as a tool of power and a sort of colonialism and capitalism. And then there’s internal time, which is something that is felt and experienced, that is both present and memory and future. It can’t be bound by space or an object or money.

D: Moving forward from that, talk about some of your visual storytelling processes and techniques.

GB: As I mentioned earlier, I started off thinking about this as a sister film to Alone, so a lot of the stylistic choices were an extension from that short film, which was in black and white and similar visual techniques. There were two basic rules that I wanted us to work within visually, thinking about power and empowerment and how the perspective in which we use a lens speaks to that or takes away from it. I’ve been working with zoom lenses for a while, and I love them so much because they really allow you to be both broad and specific at the same time.

You have an opportunity to get the full context of the space of a situation and then you become more and more narrow in specificity of a piece of dialogue or the point of a scene. So combining both of those two different principles together is what formed the entire visual approach to the film. 

I was actually not aware of the archives until we finished shooting. I had thought, Okay, I’ve got the film, I told Fox I’m going to come back and show you a cut once we got one, and she handed me a bag of 21 years worth of video tapes that I was not aware of and she just said, “Maybe this will be useful to you.”

Once I transcoded that and watched all of it, it became very clear not only that it was a feature and not a short film, but that there was this whole other world that existed, obviously, before what had been currently documented. In order to show the fullness and holistic nature of a human being in a family, that archive needed to be included.

That offered further aesthetic challenges and opportunities to blend zoom, and slick newer camera work with the textures and materiality of archives. Even though I had always thought about black and white, I think that it was even further reinforced when the archives became such a crucial part of the project because it really allowed there to be a sort of seamlessness and timelessness to the work, as it was bouncing between eras and decades. I also felt that visual singularity allowed for the film to hold a really strong score, which was important to me.

From Garrett Bradley's 'Time.' Courtesy of Amazon Studios

D: What has been the response from the Richardson family? Do you know how Sibil and her family are doing now?

GB: Reentry is another part of the convo around incarceration. Housing and employment opps are issues we would be remiss not to take into account. In Robert's case it was very different and it was a testament to their connection while he was incarcerated. It was so strong that it actually offered a unique reentry experience, which was one that was really supported. And so they are a fully formed family, they work together and everybody seems to be doing really well and Fox was successful in reuniting everybody as she wished. 

Remington is going to be graduating from dentistry school this summer; J, who was one of the twin brothers, has actually been in military school in Korea; and Freedom is about the graduate. It's a beautiful and exciting future they are moving into. 

D: That is amazing! Did you get to show the film to other families going through this?

GB: That’s something we’re going to be doing; engaging prisons themselves as well as families on the outside is going to be critical in not only screening the film but really trying to facilitate a conversation on the systematic impact this has on black and brown families and what does it mean to try to hold a family together while in the system. 

D: Is there anything you want to add?

GB: I think we are living in a space where can start to understand basic principles around the practices of documentary, the practices and rules of journalism as well our told or perceived understanding of incarceration. I think all of this is getting flipped on its head and the beauty of revolution is that it pushes us and offers new opps for us to radically reconsider the definition and symbolism of the things around us and the things we participate in. So I’m excited for the film and for the Richardson family’s story to create space for that conversation on more levels than one. 

Time premieres October 9 in theaters, then October 16 on Amazon Prime.

Ashley Omoma is a recent documentary filmmaking graduate from the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. One of her missions is to help create a world where truth is truly a tool for both justice and joy. She is also a Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow.