Leah Aldridge (Chapman University)
Time is when you look at pictures from when your babies were small, and then you look at them and you see mustaches and beards, and that the biggest hope that you had was that before they turned into men, they would have a chance to be with their father.
— Sibil “Fox” Richardson
Family, or specifically the ways in which incarceration in the United States impacts our understanding of family, is at the center of Time (2020), Garrett Bradley’s black and white, award-winning documentary. The film reveals one woman’s fight for early release of her husband from his 60-year sentence at Louisiana State Penitentiary. As domestic ethnography, Sibil “Fox” Richardson’s personal home video footage of herself and her six sons, recorded over the course of numerous years, captures what her spouse, Robert Richardson, has missed during his incarceration: first days of school, birthday parties, graduations, and the daily witnessing of a life partner’s growth from young wife to mature matriarch. However, the footage also transcends the mundane to signify the loss, absence, and longing that hover like dark shadows over their journey.
No amount of statistical data and academic literature can convey the impact parental incarceration has on families better than watching children struggle with that absence and its attendant social stigma, like the moment when high schooler Justus squirms silently in his classroom as the teacher discusses the prison system’s impact on larger American society. This cringe-worthy moment evinces Fox’s claim that the whole family does time when one member is behind bars. From the somatic to the psychological, scenes of the boys’ life progressions argue the toll this absence has on children forced to deal with adult issues. For example, Fox recounts the moment she told oldest son Remington that she was going to prison, and how he was going to have to help take care of his younger brothers. The film then cuts to home movie footage of a five-year old Remington in the passenger seat of their vehicle. We hear Fox off camera ask him “what am I going to do with a big boy like you?” to which, in a hypothetical scenario where he imagines helping her carry packages, he states emphatically “Mama, you don’t need to hold that. Let me carry it…‘Cause I’m your kindergartener…And then you put it in my hand, I get ready to carry it. I carry it wherever you tell me to take it.” As Remington falls silent, his face serious, he is more than mommy’s little helper; rather, he seems to be feeling the weight of being the ‘man of the family’ in his father’s absence. From there, the film then cuts to Bradley’s footage of Remington as an adult, graduating from dental school, another milestone that dad will miss. As viewers, we may want to be ebullient in this achievement, but as Fox says later in the film, “lots of hurt, lots of pain” lives behind the family image. This method – home footage of the boys as youngsters, then Bradley’s footage of them as young adult men – repeats: it serves as a structuring device, but also demonstrates Fox’s experience with time: one moment her sons are babies, the next moment they are grown men with beards.
Sequences like this are indicative of the way that Bradley makes the abstract idea of time visible in the film. Eschewing the familiarity of a plot driven, beginning / middle / end narrative structure, Bradley disrupts the illusion of continuous time and space for a more surrealist chronos, where dates, locations, and events are on shuffle. She renders our western- enlightenment fixation with time as completely irrelevant for the incarcerated family. For example, how do we as viewers make sense of the timing of two pregnancies that occur after Robert’s incarceration? This isn’t important to the narrative; what is important is the fact that twins Justus and Freedom, who are nearing their own high school graduation at the time of Bradley’s footage, have never lived in their home with their father.
Bradley reflexively marks time only to disrupt and disorient our typical experience with it, swapping the notion of ‘passing time’ for endurance. Life’s banality takes on new meaning in the context of Time, where a roller coaster ride, receiving a certificate of achievement, riding bikes, or participating in a school debate not only have their own ontological significance, but represent absence and longing. This idea is persuasively rendered in the scenes in which Fox sits on hold, waiting for a judge’s secretary to pick up her call and deliver an update on her husband’s case. With no news, Fox ends the call, which we are certain she’s made plenty of times over the course of twenty years, with a polite “thank you so much for your time.” In between moments of navigating the carceral system, we wonder what else Fox does to fill up her time. But, as Remington explains in the film, time does not simply act upon us; rather, our agency resides in how we perceive and manage what we endure. “Time is influenced by our emotions. It’s influenced by our actions,” he says. So, we watch as Fox makes calls, goes to work, lifts weights and climbs stair-machines at the gym. Bradley’s centering of the banal shows how the institutional strategies of social control determine the tactics of everyday life.
Accordingly, the film is also a subtle indictment of America’s legacy of white supremacy and anti-Black racism. When viewed from a 30,000-foot perspective, the film conjures up the longue duree of Black American life, institutional slavery, and the prison industrial complex. It evokes the wretchedness of the carceral state in America and its impact on Black families to demonstrate how any interaction between the US ‘justice’ system and Black folks can trigger bouts of intergenerational trauma. Time joins filmic predecessors like 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016) and The Farm: Angola, USA (Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack, 1998) and books like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Michelle Alexander, 2010) in making transhistoric connections. But rather than focus on the largeness of America’s scourge of overincarceration and its overrepresentation of Black and Brown folks in prisons, Time resonantly personalizes these arguments. Fox’s mother Mahlik calls it out explicitly when she states that to demand “60 years of human life” for a first offence armed bank robbery is “almost like slavery time. Like the white man kept you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out. And that’s what this situation is. A personal vendetta.”
Vanquishing these experiences of exploitation and frustration with hope, faith, and optimism is what makes this film so glorious. Despite decades of struggle, the expressions of love among the Richardson family members are so heartfelt: we cannot help but believe wholeheartedly in Fox’s mission to be reunited with her husband, her partner, high school sweetheart, and soulmate, and to strengthen the delicate bond between a father and his sons. As Justus says “Time is what you make of it. Time is unbiased. Time is lost. Time flies. This situation has just been a long time. A really long time.” While we know that infinite time is no one’s friend, Garrett Bradley’s Time shows us that, with perseverance and resiliency, some can beat it at its own game.
Michael Litwack (University of Alberta)
The opening sequence of Time, director Garrett Bradley’s beautiful and devastating documentary, is comprised of home videos shot by Sibil Fox Richardson. Beginning with Richardson revealing her stomach to the camera and announcing that she is pregnant with twins, the sequence then scrambles time—cycling, non-chronologically, through quotidian scenes of daily life and mothering, many of which feature Richardson addressing her incarcerated husband Robert. Across Time’s 81-minute duration, these and other home videos are interwoven with Bradley’s original footage, which charts and refracts Richardson and her family’s life and struggle fifteen years after her release from prison while Robert is still serving a sixty-year sentence at Angola. This is a struggle waged not only through the courts for Robert’s release but also through Richardson’s public activism as a self-identified prison abolitionist and in the ostensibly private spaces of familial love that Bradley takes as her focus. At its core, Time thus limns the carceral state’s trespass of the boundaries between inside and outside, public and private, while also bringing into relief those formations of gendered and transgenerational Black reproductive labor that sustain kinship in the wake of punitive captivity. It tends to the forms of knowledge and lived practices of relation generated within and against the prison’s regulation of Black intimacy. And, most crucially, it poses these relations as an antagonistic force that contradicts and exceeds the terms of punitive order.
In her study of epistolary praxis among communities systematically targeted for captivity and incarceration, Sharon Luk describes letter correspondence as a “reproductive activity that instantiates life-sustaining claims of belonging to one another.” Written under conditions of impossible duress and with no guarantee of arrival, the epistle is a labor and a medium of social reproduction. It claims and constitutes the survival of life-worlds that are simultaneously breached and forged through the brutal divisions of carceral space.
I want to think about Time as a letter or, at least, as a film that is full of letters. That is to say, I want to consider Richardson and Bradley’s audiovisual practice as the renewal of a Black feminist upheaval within the epistolary form. In the final moments of Time’s opening sequence, Richardson addresses her husband directly, the stationary camera tightly framed on her face: “Do you see this smile, Robert? Do you know how hard I’m going to be smiling when you come home?” On one register, the conceit here is that Robert cannot respond to his wife’s question, cannot see this smile. The omnipresent forms of torture waged daily against imprisoned people and their communities—including through repressive regimes of mail regulation, censorship, and surveillance—aim to ensure this.
But even as Richardson’s apostrophe calls out to her husband in the present, she also speaks to and from the future. Do you know how hard I’m going to be smiling when you come home? Richardson’s video at once marks the time of living through state-organized catastrophe and makes another kind of time that inscribes a memory of freedom that is not yet. It ruptures the law that would interdict the possibility of this letter, this smile, and the force of their enunciation of Black togetherness. Rather than an unsent letter, hers then is an unconditional pledge to its arrival in a future that remains ungiven. Her address inhabits the tense of the future real conditional (“that which will have had to happen”), or what the visual theorist Tina Campt calls the “performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must.” This open love letter—forwarded by Bradley through her reproduction of Richardson’s home videos—forms a living archive of care, loss, and desire, of Black women’s self-imaging and self-archiving practices as intimate labors of freedom struggle.
The future real conditional is one of several temporal modes that entwine across Bradley’s cinematic rendering of how modern carcerality expropriates, administers, wastes, warehouses, and weaponizes time. The grayscale tones of Bradley’s original footage blur almost—but not quite—seamlessly into Richardson’s black and white home videos, which were shot in color but desaturated by Bradley and Time’s editor Gabriel Rhodes. This produces less a clear narrative progression from then to now, archive to present, than a vertiginous drift into a time held in abeyance between movement and standstill. Sometimes Richardson’s videos begin with her announcement of the date of their recording– it’s July 23, May 24, August 24, October 18. Other times, they document a significant occasion, like a birthday or their son Remington’s first day of kindergarten, which serves as a proxy timestamp. But mostly these videos chronicle the activity of the everyday and the ordinary, with the passage of time registered by Robert’s persistent absented presence.
In tandem with recurring voice-overs that present Richardson and her children theorizing the dense and often contradictory meanings of time, the film’s sequential arrangement conjures a time beyond measure that displaces the punitive calculus of “crime and punishment,” which aims to arrest time as a fungible and exchangeable quantity. Against such a temporal metric, the times of anticipation, longing, delay, and disappointment all overlap and accumulate recursively across Bradley’s film.
Importantly, Time does not centrally focus on Richardson’s own three and a half years of incarceration, which is instead framed primarily through a recounting of her own mother’s care for Richardson’s children during her consignment to captivity. This narrative strategy echoes Time’s broader treatment of the U.S. carceral regime foremost in terms of its systematic assault on Black social reproduction, as well as the film’s insistence that Black women’s caring labors constitute a fundamental terrain of struggle against this war of social dismantling. But this strategy also serves to block the spectator’s full access to these biographical traces, and instead establishes Richardson as a key collaborator in crafting the film’s mode of storytelling. Such an emphasis on Richardson’s own practices of self-imaging becomes especially palpable in her multiple acts of direct address, which emerge as a motif across the film.
By crystallizing these scenes of self-fashioning, Time can also be understood as offering an ethical intervention in the logic of transparency and the coercive demand for disclosure that saturate the genre of the prison documentary. This is a logic and a demand often predicated on the assumption that seeing inside the prison is identical to knowing what the carceral is and what it does. In this regard, we might say that Time ultimately takes up, within the field of the image, the activist-intellectual Gina Dent’s call “to rethink an abolitionist politics that starts from the position of those women on the underside of capital but does not put them in another cage.”
A shot of Robert lovingly gazing at Fox off-screen after his release initiates Time’s final sequence, a montage of family videos played in reverse that culminates in a kiss between Fox and Robert. One could certainly read this closing sequence as a statement on the intractable distance between the time of captive life and the time of the image. Only through the magic of moving-image media, that is, might time be rewound. While a digital video can be played back in reverse, neither Fox nor Robert can steal back the incalculable time that has been stolen from them by the carceral state. In an earlier voice-over that bridges old home video footage of Richardson sitting with her young children and a series of close-ups of one of her grown sons shot by Bradley, Richardson herself seems to confirm such a reading when she describes the disjuncture between the image’s power of preservation and the irreparable violence of time theft waged everywhere against Black life: “Time is when you look at pictures from when your babies were small, and then you look at them and you see that they have moustaches and beards and that the biggest hope that you had was that before they turned into men they would have a chance to be with their father.” If the picture serves as a repository of personal and collective remembrance, so too are these memories written over by the violence of a system that is executed through its cruel impassivity to the irreversible movement of time.
Yet notice Richardson’s insistence that what the picture elicits, in the last instance, is “the biggest hope that you had.” Less a record of the past than a motor of insurgent desire, the picture both traces and sustains a practice of freedom that calls for the arrival of an otherwise future. We might wonder, finally, if this closing sequence is not then a rewinding of time but instead exemplary of Time’s general unwinding (in the sense of “to free from a binding”)—that is, the film’s descent into the temporal bounds of carceral enclosure that suffuse our social order, as well as Bradley and Richardson’s labors to extricate time from the temporalities of violence that this enclosure reproduces and secures.