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‘Time’ Review: One of 2020’s greatest documentaries is a vivid portrait of emotional endurance and mass incarceration’s specters

Past and present are fused in an extraordinarily materialized stream of memory in Garrett Bradley's new movie.
Credit: Amazon Studios

Here is something that is both almost completely true and also completely false about Garrett Bradley’s new documentary, “Time”: For a movie about the effects of being in prison, it doesn’t show images of prison.

Yes, a TV news report includes a shot of the barbed wire that you’ll recognize without seeing what it’s encircling, and, yes, two or three times do we soar over a sprawling Louisiana correctional facility that occupies the landscape like a hibernating beast. But that statement is also not true because “Time” is constructed of images of imprisonment that fill the entirety of its 81 minutes. A young boy playing without his father. A woman on hold, again, over the phone. Repeated views of clouds rolling by which, if initially idyllic, eventually come to indicate the ceaseless falling of sand in the hourglass—of precious moments lost with precious loved ones because of systems overzealous to view them as less than human. There’s more than one type of imprisonment, this remarkable and heart-wrenching documentary’s images tell us; for every one of the hundreds of thousands behind physical bars due to cracked criminal justice codes, many more are forced to endure the same sentence behind emotional ones.

A not-so-traditional documentary about a subject that common sense would think demands a traditional documentary approach, “Time” is an impressionistic work of vivid emotion and rare levels of intimacy. Who is it we follow? That would be the Rich family. Most acutely, it’s Fox Rich, a Black Louisiana woman who hasn’t devoted the past two decades to bringing her husband home from a 60-year prison sentence so much as she’s made it her life. “Time” reverberates between showing Rich in vulnerable states and empowered ones; Bradley frequently returns to a university seminar where Rich speaks truth to power about fighting against oppression – the kind that she knows isn’t recognized by oppression by too many – and, in between, Bradley also lingers on Rich calling up the state prison where her husband, Robert, is being held to inquire about the paperwork of a possible release. We immediately recognize it as routine, and most days the news is as expected: There’s been no progress. Sometimes, the news is worse: They haven’t even gotten around to filing the paperwork. In what might be the movie’s most achingly human observation, Fox’s frustration is etched on her face before it’s given voice.

As documentary subject, Rich is compelling; as avatar for those whose families have been subjugated to the reality that Black people are exponentially more likely than white people to face prison time, she represents something more tragic—an incisive and at-times righteously furious voice of a struggle that was forced to find its strength from a point of initial fragmentation. What makes “Time” a stunning, moving and often miraculous work is that we glimpse the initial ripples of that fragmentation, in an echo of filmmaking’s unique potential; modern footage that Bradley captures in crisp black-and-white may seem like it couldn’t be more naturalistic, but the film actually starts with grainy home video from the late-‘90s, shot by Fox herself. The movie’s canvas widens, literally and metatextually, to something that would be almost unwieldy in another director’s hands.

Clearly much younger but sporting the same southern accent, it’s implied that these first images are from not long after Rich completed her own brief prison sentence (mention is made of the desperation-motivated caper she and Robert took part in before they faced a judge; her shorter sentence resulted from a plea deal). She’s settling into the initial stages of what she knows will be a years-long compromise with fate, and with what amounts to legal malpractice; Robert’s sentence was six decades, even though no one was hurt in their crime. “Despite our circumstances, everything is OK,” a younger, resolute Fox says to the camera. Around her are toddlers that we – in what feels like an extraordinary gift of the most poignant kind of access – will also come to observe as young men.

Her words are a mission statement that allows “Time” to transcend as a soulful meditation of anchoring ourselves to the most personal foundations as days turn into months, months into years, hardship into unimaginable feat of courage. To see Fox Rich, years down the line, continue to work towards the mantra she stated long ago makes watching “Time” an experience laced with equal amounts of hope, dire uncertainty and sincere gratitude that such a selfless caliber of humanity still illuminates certain pockets of an increasingly inhumane world.

You could say the topic of “Time” is the prison-industrial complex, in the same way that you could say the ostensible focus is a decades-long journey of reconnection. But “Time” is more concerned with ripples than the initial plunge, and so it is also about family, enduring love, emotional fortitude and the power of universality in the ultraspecific. As such, the insight in “Time” isn’t statistical. There are no colorful graphs charting the evolution of the mass incarceration dilemma, no talking heads making lecture halls of perfectly lit rooms. The conclusions we may draw from the Richs’ weariness, candid conversations, celebratory scenes with the specter of a husband’s absence and the simple image of a young boy quietly hearing his father on the phone are orders of magnitude more powerful than academic testimony. “Time” seeks to be something more elemental, and the effect is a magnification of urgent issues that we’re naturally drawn to instead of the movie insisting our attention be drawn to it.

The documentary is, at the same time, an extraordinary act of empathy from its creator. In Bradley’s third documentary feature, she has managed to make it seem completely inextricable from Fox’s voice, and occasionally the voice of her sons. Sometimes that’s explicit, and “Time” becomes a cinematic diary. More effectively, the movie has a metronomic pace akin to the way we impulsively harken back to certain happy moments, or inexplicably linger on troubling ones. The editing bounces back and forth in time, providing for organic juxtaposition of the younger Fox’s lo-fi footage against the sleek images gathered by Bradley’s team, but also making the audience feel like we’ve been caught in someone else’s stream of memory and internal emotional logic. There may not be practical sense to the movie’s scene-to-scene construction, but there’s an appropriate lack of groundedness that’s born from Bradley championing Fox’s perspective over her own, all as a jazzy score from Edwin Montgomery and Jamieson Shaw continues to emphasize the inherent melancholy.

“Time” need not reflect on the overarching specifics of mass incarceration’s history to make a statement about it, nor would numbers provide sharper clarity than what is already evident on the lines of Rich’s face, or on the faint smile she wears while adjusting the cardboard cutout of Robert in the living room. There’s implicit meaning to the simplest of images that Bradley – and the younger Fox – captures on film, and its power never drains. Even in the doc’s final moments of reclamation and joy and pitch-perfect flashback does an underlying graveness of reality ring clear. The smiles are the widest we have seen elsewhere in these snapshots of a fractured family, but so is the sadness of the years that have been lost.

"Time" is rated PG-13 for some strong language. It's streaming on Amazon Prime now. 

Starring: Fox Rich, Robert Rich, Freedom Rich, Justus Rich

Directed by Garrett Bradley