Mass incarceration in the U.S. is often only discussed through the lens of numbers and facts, data that creates a comfortable barrier from the actual humans at the heart of the system. If, as psychologist Paul Slovic said, “statistics are human beings with tears dried off,” then Time, the 2020 documentary from director Garrett Bradley, gives us the tears of a wife, a husband, six sons, and an entire community as it paints a picture of incarceration that is poetic, affecting, and utterly human.
In 1997, newly married couple Rob and Sibil “Fox Rich” Richardson robbed a bank to save their failing business. Over twenty years later, Fox is a successful business owner and activist, having served her three and a half year sentence. Rob, sentenced to sixty years without parole, remains incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Using a combination of original footage and archival home movies filmed by Fox herself, director Bradley weaves the then and the now together—the family memories that Rob has missed intertwined with Fox’s tireless efforts to win his freedom.
The result is a more lyrical and personal approach to documentary filmmaking. Time’s meditative piano score, black and white footage, and nonlinear editing style create a sense of painful intimacy that a more factually focused film would likely have missed. While Bradley gives us just enough information to understand the details behind Rob’s incarceration, she continually redirects our attention to Fox’s pursuit of justice on his behalf and the devastating impact of the situation on their entire family.
While Time never shifts its focus from the personal, it implicitly urges us to draw broader connections—to the families currently enduring what the Richardsons went through, and to the millions of incarcerated people who do not have someone like Fox Rich to advocate on their behalf.
Even with Fox’s perseverant efforts, the situation remains seemingly futile and the system frustratingly bureaucratic. The Richardsons appear to have done everything right, checked every necessary box: Fox has found professional success, her sons are at the top of their class and involved in a variety of extracurricular activities. However, Time refuses to hold them up as a standard against which to measure other families affected by incarceration. Rather, the film functions as both a tribute and an indictment, honoring the work done by activists like Fox while denouncing the systems that make such work necessary.
It is not uncommon for a film to address the failures of the U.S. criminal justice system by telling the story of someone who has been falsely accused (like last year’s Just Mercy). But Time goes a step further and, in doing so, provides a critique that is all the more vital. It forces us to confront the ways in which the justice system not only mistreats the innocent but the guilty as well. Fox and Rob were not innocent—and at no point do they pretend to be. In fact, during one moving scene, Fox stands in front of her church congregation and asks for their forgiveness for the effect of her actions on the entire community. This awareness of community is at the crux of the film’s argument. Just as no action occurs in isolation, no consequence does either. Time makes it clear: the incarceration of one man has rippled out across years and across lives; the attempt to rectify one wrong has caused countless others. Do we dare imagine a new system of justice that might account for community and context, that could remember that at its very center are human beings?
Near the end of the documentary, Rob is finally resentenced and released. Fox puts on a white dress and jubilantly drives to the prison to welcome him home. The stunning sequence that follows is a wedding, a rebirth, a renewal of vows, a celebration of life. And yet it is also a lament, a funeral of sorts for the pieces of their lives lost during the past twenty years.
As Fox speaks to her gathered family, reflecting on all that has happened, we wind backwards through the grainy black and white archival footage—the boys riding bikes in reverse, Fox pregnant again, a birthday cake with candles blown out and then lit—until we finally alight on one last shot. Fox and Rich in the car twenty-odd years ago, sharing a quick, tender kiss. He looks at her, at the camera, at the road. She never takes her eyes off of him.