Review: ‘Time,’ a wrenching story of love and injustice, is one of 2020’s great documentaries
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The opening sequence of “Time,” Garrett Bradley’s haunting, heartrending documentary, is a nearly six-minute masterpiece in miniature. It’s a montage of home-video snippets, shot over several years by Sibil Fox Richardson, who goes by Fox Rich. We first see her aiming the camera at herself and trying to figure out the best angle — the first of many moments in which she’ll gently assert her authorship, framing and reframing her own image. She speaks of her husband, Robert Richardson, who’s in prison, noting she herself was released about a week earlier. Moving on to a happier subject, she announces she’s pregnant with twins, standing up to reveal her gently swollen belly.
Before she can say much more, one of her young sons, Laurence, pops into the frame with a goofy grin — and for the next few minutes the camera is giddily aloft, leaping from one scene to the next, in what almost feels like a single uninterrupted movement. Piano chords flood the soundtrack, and images flood the screen: We see Rich hanging out with her boys at home, splashing about with them in a pool, lecturing them in the car and jostling next to them on a carnival ride. Eventually she addresses the camera again, quietly beaming: “Do you see this smile, Robert?” she whispers. “Do you know how hard I’m gonna be smiling when you come home?”
It’s an intensely intimate sequence, teeming with life, pulsing with joy and yet marked by a powerful, palpable absence. Rich filmed these moments so that her husband could see a little of what he’d missed after his eventual release. Many years later, she turned over her roughly 100-hour trove of material to Bradley, who had already been filming Rich and her six sons (including those now fully grown twins, Freedom and Justus). Bradley and her editor, Gabriel Rhodes, began cutting together the past and present footage and what emerged was a prismatic story of crime and punishment, a critical portrait of the prison system’s many casualties and an 81-minute, two-decades-spanning epic of love, devotion and perseverance.
“Time,” which opens in select theaters this week and begins streaming Oct. 16 on Amazon, is an artful puzzle, a hypnotic game of chronological hopscotch. But as constructed by Bradley, who won a directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s bound by certain formal unities. Despite the clear contrast between the rough-hewn archival video and the sharp, shimmeringly beautiful newer material (shot by Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach and Nisa East), the entire movie is rendered in black and white. It’s a visual choice that allows both time frames to gently blur while still remaining distinct, even as they are often tied together by the melancholy strains and surging arpeggios of Jamieson Shaw and Edwin Montgomery’s score.
Most of all, perhaps, “Time” is held together by Rich’s remarkable voice — soft and raspy in the older clips, deeper and more declarative in the more recent ones. It’s clear from the outset that she’s a born storyteller. She tells us how she and Robert fell in love as teenagers, married in 1997 and hoped to open a hip-hop clothing store in Shreveport, La. When their plans fell through, they committed a foolish, desperate act and tried to rob a credit union. Rich, who drove the getaway car, received a plea deal and served three-and-a-half years. Robert was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison, a staggering sentence for a robbery in which no one was hurt. (The story of Robert’s nephew, who also participated in the crime, goes untold here.)
“Sixty years … of human life,” an older Rich murmurs, with more disbelief than self-pity. By this point her husband has served 20 years of that sentence, and she’s spent a lot of time petitioning for his release, filing appeals and making endless phone calls on his behalf. She’s also given lectures about her family’s experience and the injustices of a carceral state in which Black people are grotesquely overrepresented, which she and others liken to a modern-day reconstitution of slavery. Rich and her children might not be behind bars but as long as Robert is, they are not, in any meaningful sense, free.
And the devastating loss they feel is somehow made more acute, rather than less, by the very real counterpresence of joy, success and fulfillment in their lives. “Time” is a patchwork of moments big and small: We see Freedom speaking in a political science debate, Justus impressing his mom with some of his college French and their older brother Remington graduating from dental school. Most of all, we see Rich gradually (though not always chronologically) coming into her own, whether she’s publicly reckoning with her long-ago crime at church, taping a TV commercial for the car dealership she now runs or speaking publicly about the pain of growing older without her husband — and seeing her boys grow up without their father.
Rich rarely looks more radiant than she does in those speeches, partly because we can see the effect of her words on her listeners — most of them other Black women held rapt by her intensity of feeling — and partly because of the unapologetic glamour with which she’s presented. That glamour suffuses nearly all the recent footage, bringing an intense, almost sacralizing beauty to bear on simple deeds and gestures: a young man ironing a shirt, a woman steeling herself for another dispiriting phone call. Some of these images recur steadily throughout, as if to remind us of the repetition that comes with waiting, the ritualistic despair that seeps into every moment.
The saddest recurring image is a silent God’s-eye view of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is as close as we get to seeing Robert during his incarceration, apart from the life-sized cardboard cutout of him that graces the Richardsons’ walls. His absence quietly haunts the movie even as it builds toward a moment of such shattering emotional force that the screen can hardly contain it; it all but ruptures the surface of a movie that is already a record in fragments. “Time” can make you weep for a hundred reasons, from joy, pain or recognition, but its wounds and its glories are finally inextricable from one of the paradoxes of moviemaking itself. Cinema can magically compress decades into hours and transform lives into narratives, but what it erects here is ultimately a monument to something irretrievable. Cherish every moment of this movie, because each one stands in for all the others that have been lost.
Rated: PG-13, for some strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 9 Landmark Hillcrest, San Diego; in limited release where theaters are open; available Oct. 16 on Amazon Prime Video
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