I don’t think a review can sum up the emotional onslaught that Garrett Bradley’s powerful documentary evokes. It’s a documentary full of mental resilience and strength in the face of injustice. It’s also a documentary that begins tearing at your heart before slowly pulling all the pieces back together. And when you hear Fox Rich – our focus of the film – staring into the camera to acclaim “success is the best revenge”, going through the spectrum of pain, frustration and anger behind those determined eyes, you know you’re watching something special.
Time is a profound piece of documentary filmmaking, and what sets it apart from traditional documentaries is its subject matter. This is a story about mass incarceration. But the important element is its perspective – a Black woman, looking at the devastating void left in her wake when her childhood sweetheart, her husband, Robert, is sent to prison for sixty years (without parole) for armed robbery.
It’s crucial to recognise Black women in the conversation about mass incarceration and criminal injustice. Time, just like Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, acknowledge that they are a voice and perspective often neglected, unacknowledged or erased. And that reach extends beyond appearance. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing cases of tragedy at its start, at the point of impact where lives are upended in an instance, where lives are ripped apart and torn into two. But rarely do we consider the toil, to switch the lens to acknowledge the aftermath. That’s what Bradley’s doc excels at. With unprecedented access, she weaves an intimate narrative on how those burdens and traumas hit home, where sacrifices in supporting, rebuilding, childcaring, expensive legal fees and combating against a corrupt system means fighting for the man you love.
And that’s where Time slowly turns into a philosophical analogy – ‘time flies’, ‘time stands still’, ‘time is unbiased’ and ‘time is what you make of it’. If there is one thing that Bradley never shuns her attention away from is the human cost. Its presence is felt in one poignant scene where Rich is placed on hold, waiting to fear from the judge’s office. The long silences, the drawn-out pauses only symbolise how quickly ‘time’ can slip away when a life decision is waiting on the other end of a phone line. Ultimately, it is a tragedy, where Fox Rich’s children grow up without a father, and the psychological impact it has on a family when society is quick to denounce and demonise for their absence. Bradley often repeats the same video image of Rob, immortalised as a haunting figure of a man trapped in time. You can’t even begin to imagine how it feels to be in Rob’s situation; images of his growing up in front of the camera, birthdays, car journeys, and achievements, are life moments that can never get back for the time that was lost. And that is a heartbreak that is etched throughout.
For some, the circumstances would be enough to break someone. Garrett Bradley does not make Fox Rich innocent – Fox paid the price too when she was locked up for the same crime (receiving a different sentence from her husband). She admits, “desperate people do desperate things”, never wanting to be placed in a humiliating situation ever again where her freedom was taken away. And through empathy, healing, self-love, and forgiveness that Bradley pieces together, not only the strength of the family but subtly question, how much ‘justice’ is enough?
It would have been easy to veer off course at this stage and look at the structures of the criminal justice system and introduce various ‘talking heads’. But instead, Bradley refrains, leaving Fox to feed in the details that put shame to the sentence “if you can’t do the time, then don’t do the crime.” And because she’s willing to delve deep into the human complexities that life has to offer, Bradley showcases a real potency behind her work, filled with poetry, spiritualism and impeccable substance.
Sometimes as a viewer, you can’t help but feel in awe at Fox Rich. Not just because her abolitionist power in becoming an advocate for the voiceless in her rousing speeches, but in fighting against those odds, ensuring her kids don’t become a ‘national statistic’ linking incarcerated fathers and dropouts (another aspect that the documentary demystifies). The strive for excellence only cements what becomes the documentary’s blessing and reward – a celebration of unconditional love and never giving up. The last few moments of the documentary is one of those overwhelming moments where you cry your heart out.
In shining a light on an important aspect in the continued fight against racial injustice and the criminal system, Time – without question – documents that experience as an example of belief, fight, and resounding defiance, which will stick with me for a long time. With its artistic mixture of Fox’s home videos and the present, the black and white imagery brings an inescapable immersion – by far, the most impressive documentary I’ve seen in a long time and certainly the best documentary of this year.
TIME screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. Out now on Amazon Prime.