Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Humanity of The Incarcerated Is Reaffirmed Through The Documentary Time

A large chunk of the Garrett Bradley documentary Time is comprised of old home video footage of the Richardson family. Led by mother Sibil Fox Richardson and father Rob Richardson, the Richardsons lead a happy life. Their kids are bundles of happy energy. Sibil and Rob are affectionate with one another. With two more kids on the way, the Richardson family circa. 1996 appears destined for a blissful life. However, the family is suffering from financial woes. There's seemingly no way out of their problems without drastic measures. Rob and Sibil proceed to engage in armed robbery of a credit union, for which they're both arrested. 

Sibil spends a handful of years in prison while Rob is sentenced to 60 years behind bars. Once she's out of jail, Sibil totally transforms her life. Now, her entire existence revolves around not only trying to get her husband an early release but raising awareness of America's incarceration problem. She goes around as a public speaker talking about how the American prison system is meant to keep Black men in chains rather than its supposed mission of "reforming" people. Bradley's documentary cuts back-and-forth between home video footage of the past and newly captured footage of the present. In those glimpses into the past, we see the Richardson family expressing the kind of vibrant humanity that the American prison-industrial complex erases when it claims a person like Rob. He becomes a number, not the person seen in these home video tapes.

To watch Time is watch America's past, the present and terrifying future all at once. Rob is not an anomaly in this country. Just a few weeks ago, a verdict came down in regard to the death of Breonna Taylor that punished a police officer for putting bullets into walls rather than a human being. Once again, the humanity of a Black person is erased by systems that are supposedly designed to keep people safe. Within Time, we see the toll this systemically-ingrained corruption has on everyday people. But we also get to see how the Richardson family is responding to these horrors. Time lets the individual members of the Richardson family speak for themselves on how the imprisonment of Rob has inspired them to challenge the societal status quo.

This is especially true for Sibil, who has spent well over a decade not only writing books and partaking in speaking engagements, she's also been working tirelessly for her husband's early release from prison. That particular goal informs the strongest scene in all of Time, which chronicles Sibil getting off the phone with an unhelpful figure. Finding herself at another dead, she murmurs to herself "Success is the best revenge." As she keeps repeating the phrase, she undergoes a whole array of emotions portrayed in a visceral manner. In the span of a single shot, she expresses simultaneous frustration, weariness, determination, and sorrow over this entire situation. There's such a rawness to this moment that makes Sibil's struggles so palpable.

Like all of the 1990's home video footage of the Richardson family, this moment of vulnerability from Sibil in Time radiates vigorous humanity. This quality is able to shine through so brightly, in part, due to Bradley's restrained but thoughtful approach in directing this documentary. She opts not to inundate the movie with ham-fisted narration or visual aids. Heck, even interviews with the camera (a staple of many documentaries) are kept to a minimum. Instead, Bradley keeps things simple and naturalistic. Only the choice to film everything in a monochromatic hue (so as to create consistency with the black-and-white home video footage) deviates from the real world. Otherwise, Time opts for such authenticity that, frequently, the camera is observing events and people that seem totally oblivious to the presence of a documentary crew. 

Time engages in a style of filmmaking that evokes Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA in how it makes the viewer feel like they're in the same room as these real-life people. It's not like we're watching a film, we're observing reality as it unfolds. This subdued approach to filmmaking extends to the limited amount of people we meet throughout Time. Bradley's camera only chronicles the Richardson family. Keeping the scope so limited allows us the opportunity to get so close to each of the people most impacted by Rob's incarceration. These immersive and richly human qualities of Time make it impossible not to become emotionally invested in this harrowing story. Garrett Bradley's work here lays bare the lives torn apart by the American prison system. Time is as well-crafted as it is tragically relevant.

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