Society is so wedded to the brutal and inhumane nature of the prison system that the mere suggestion of an alternative is often ridiculed and rejected. From a young age we’re indoctrinated into the belief that justice is served when someone is sent to prison, but does it exist to help society or to make ourselves feel better (and to contain people of colour and the working classes), feeding the distorted belief that justice must equal punishment? Do prisoners come out better people, reformed after being locked in cages and left to rot? Mostly the answer is no. It doesn’t benefit them and in the long run the system creates more damage for everyone else as a result.
The abolition of the prison system is an idea that Fox Rich (Sibil Fox Richardson) and her family had to learn the hardest way possible. Being Black in America (or anywhere else in Western society) is filled with enough trip wires as it is, but as the mother of her imprisoned husband says in Garrett Bradley’s inspirational and emotionally-affecting documentary Time, the US prison industrial complex is “almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out.” Rob Richardson, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for armed robbery, effectively putting him behind bars for the rest of his life. This would extinguish most people’s hope, but Fox continued to raise their family and refused to give up on Rob being granted an early release. “Success is the best revenge,” she says after being frustrated by the courts lack of care once again.
In some instances, early might mean a few years or maybe even a decade. But as Bradley expertly pieces together using a combination of MiniDV tapes and present-day fly-on-the-wall footage, we learn Fox has been fighting the system for nigh on 20 years. During that time, her sons have become stand-up young men, while Fox has grown into a passionate advocate of prison abolition. Shot in black-and-white, Bradley’s documentary captures the weight of time that has clung onto the shoulders of this family, forcing them to count every day, week, month – every second – as they wait on the state to decide their future.
Fox was also sent to prison for her part played in the robbery, choosing to take the plea bargain of 12 years while Rob was forced to trial by a new lawyer who did not restore the original deal. As we see in the personal to-camera footage shot by Fox in her late-20s, she was carrying their twins, Justus and Freedom, and over the years the camcorder would become a personal diary used to keep her sane. The videos offer the perfect time capsule to show how the years have passed, not only seen in the natural physical and psychological changes of a person two decades on, but also the evolution of her then naïve six children into the young men they are today, with Freedom – an eloquent speaker like his mother – eager to study criminal justice.
There is no denial about the crime they committed, Fox explaining that it came from a place of desperation. At the time they had not long closed on their first home and had set up Shreveport’s (Louisiana) first hip-hop clothing store. With money already heavily invested their backer pulled out, leaving them deep in debt. Fox dropped her husband and his nephew (who is still serving time) at the bank and left the scene, only for the police to quickly arrive and capture the two men who had stolen just over $5,000. Rob had no previous convictions and no-one was injured during the robbery.
It’s often said that the person imprisoned is not the only one doing time and Bradley’s interweaving of the footage illustrates how it has left the Richardson family in limbo. We watch Fox on the phone patiently and politely pushing for answers about a new judgement, frustrated by the purposely slow bureaucracy designed to wear people down. Her sons linger on the edges of the room desperately waiting to hear good news that will free them from an oppression forced onto them by the state since birth.
Throughout it all Fox remains an inspirational figure, an activist, entrepreneur and mother who has continued to stand up to the authorities. At what cost, we do not know, and perhaps she won’t either until allowed the time to look back on a struggle she has fought for almost half her life. Justus reflects on the ravaging effects of time, saying that although his family project a very strong image, behind it all lies a lot of pain. As they prepare for the parole hearing even Rob’s lawyer says the state will resent that the Richardson’s are coming from such a position of strength, underlining the inherently racist nature of a cruel system built on power and subjugation rather than anything to do with the obtuse concept of ‘justice’.
Time also benefits from an enchanting score, much of it provided by the unknown Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a 96-year-old Ethiopian composer stumbled upon by Bradley on YouTube. It adds to the spirit and feeling of hope built into Fox’s narrative despite her situation, ending with a simple but moving crescendo. Bradley develops a level of emotional investment in 80 minutes that many films twice the length struggle to achieve, and like her subjects utilises every moment of time to make it count.
Time is released in select US cinemas on October 9 before being made available to stream on Amazon Prime from October 16. The film also plays at the London Film Festival.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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