Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 20, 2020 4:01 pm 
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A woman waits eighteen years for her husband to get out of prison

Time by documentarian Garrett Bradley is an amalgam. Focused on a black mother whose husband is in prison for nearly twenty years and her six sons, it blends a mixture of film footage. The most plangent and vivid, sometimes clumsy, is home footage shot by the mother herself of the boys for her husband. The rest was made by the filmmaker's cameramen of the family. The whole is joined together by conversion of all to black and white. The period footage is purposely jumbled up in time, to be not just documentation but the haunting of memory. The result is perhaps intentionally disorienting - a "vibrant cubist portrait," as Shri Linden puts it in her Hollywood Reporter review.

Sibyl Fox Richardson, known as Fox Rich, the center of the film, is the wife of Rob Richardson, sentenced to sixty years in Louisiana State Prison for a failed bank robbery. It was an act done out of "desperation," Fox Rich says. They and another were trying to start a hip hop clothing store, in Shreveport but an investor pulled out, and they were poor. Fox Rich was involved in the crime too, as the driver. She agreed to plea bargain and wound up doing 3 1/2 years. Rob wouldn't, and he got the big sentence.

The point of the jumping around is what? To make us feel the same powerlessness, perhaps, as Fox Rich and enter into her memories. The whole point is her struggle, her pain, and her determination, as she raises the boys, with help from her mother, into what looks like an impressive, good-looking brood. Fox Rich is a powerful, steadfast, determined woman, who we see often as an inspirational speaker in her self-defined cause talking to wives and families of prisoners about how incarceration of black people in America is slavery, and she is an abolitionist. At some times we see she has a car dealership, and recording a filmed advertisement, presumably for television. This is Fox Rich's portrait and that of her six sons, especially the twins, Freedom and Justus, born after Rob was imprisoned because she was pregnant when he went in.

The time-mix makes a dizzying continuum of the near twenty-year wait, reduced to only two visits to her husband a month, and the thousands wasted on lawyers who come up with nothing, while the boys go from chirping kindergarteners, junior high schoolers and high schoolers to college kids, and back again, and Fox Rich waits and controls her anger and pain as year after year she calls the white judge's office to find out what his response is to the latest appeal of the sentence.

As is often the case, I appreciate the artistry of this film, and above all the immediacy of its vivid personal portraiture, while still wishing it had at least sometimes been also framed in a more conventionally explicit form or included more conventionally explanatory material, more facts. But there are many strong moments here. Fox Rich is eloquent, and fascinating. All the different hair styles! The dignity, and the passion! Filmed by Bradley, Justus, a very handsome 18-year-old, perhaps, says, in crisp tones, "When my mother and father were arrested for robbing a bank" (with a confident click on the "k" of "bank"), "she wound up having a set of twins, one being myself, the other being my twin brother Freedom." He also says, "My family has a very strong image." (Here we see them assembled, adult, well dressed, at a public occasion.) "But behind that is a lot of hurt, lot of pain." And this film is a stirring portrait of that pain.

What stands out is Fox Rich's apparently unwavering loyalty to her husband, and to the cause of making a decent living and raising her sons right, in the racist South. Eighteen years for a minor bank robbery, a sentence of sixty? I guess they didn't have access to the right fancy lawyers. I guess they were Black in America.

The score is unusual, like the chronology, periods of conventional string music augmented by a tranquil piano performance by a now ninety-something Ethiopian nun called Emahoy Tsegué Guèbrou, found on YouTube.

Greg Nussen wrote eloquently of this film on Letterboxd: "Time is both a cinematic wonder and a heavy piece of political agitation. . . [it's] as much about the arbitrary nature of time as it is about the fallacy that forms the basis of the American justice system. Time that is 'served' and time that is taken away, time that is thrust upon victims of the system and time that is even gained. Prisons are neither places for rehabilitation nor a useful means with which to punish someone, they accomplish nothing of value except for the people that literally profit off it."

"Are we going to see him get out?" I think we wonder as we watch. Yes, we do, and it's worth the wait. Rob comes out in a T-shirt saying "NEVER GIVE UP." The return is joyous, sexy, and loving. Rob is not a cowed victim. He is presidential. At a celebration of many hugs he says the greatest value and the greatest faith is love and adds, "If it could be an acronym it would be Life's Only Valid Expression." These people have a lot of class. They're pretty awesome.

Time, 81 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, and won the Documentary Directing award at Sundance and has won several other awards and nominations. It also showed at Miami Mar. 2020 and Sept. 20 at the virtual New York Film Festival, as part of which it was screened for this review, and is set for showing Sept. 24 at Zurich, Camden International (virtual) Film Festival, London and the Hamptons (virtual) Oct. 9. It is slated for internet release on Oct. 16 in the US and Oct. 23 in Canada.

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