NEW YORK – For the 21 years while Sibil “Fox” Richardson’s husband, Rob, was imprisoned, they were, she says, “a telephone, letter-writing, visitation, just-stay-alive and keep-your-head-above-water couple.”
How long is 21 years plus four days? Garrett Bradley’s acclaimed documentary about the Richardson family, “Time,” measures its passage through a father’s absence. It’s seen in children growing up, graduations coming and going, faces changing with age. Made with family video diaries shot by Fox of herself and their six children that span more than two decades, “Time” lends a powerfully intimate portrait of the toll of mass incarceration.
Many films have sought to capture the impact of America’s prison industrial complex, but “Time” is something else. The film, which Amazon will release in select theaters Friday and launch on Amazon Prime next week, is a lyrical, black-and-white montage that digs into the long-term ache of incarceration. In footage that unspools more circularly than chronologically, toddlers turn into young men and then back again.
It’s also about an enduring love. Throughout the two decades, Fox remains steadfastly devoted to her husband. She becomes a social rights advocate and works tirelessly to get him freed from the Louisiana State Penitentiary where he’s serving a 60-year sentence for robbing a bank.
“Love never left off,” says Fox, speaking by Zoom alongside Rob from New Orleans. Says Rob: “Instead of a story of crime and punishment, a story of love and conviction was put before our people to see.”
Rob and Fox were high-school sweethearts. They married, bought a house and planned to start a business. But when their plans for a hip-hop clothing store fell through in 1997, they held up a branch of the Shreveport Credit Union. The scheme was poorly thought out; they didn’t steal any money and no one got hurt. But their sentences were harsh. Fox, the getaway driver, got 19 years. Rob got 60 years.
“It was hard to even admit out of pride and out of guilt that our actions had led us to such a lowly place,” says Fox. “We’re good people. And sometimes good people do the darnedest dog-gone things.”
They never claimed they were innocent but the length of sentence seemed to them excessive. Fox was three-months pregnant with twins at the time of sentencing. In “Time,” she grows furious, weary and increasingly impatient with the bureaucratic appeals process. “These people have no respect for other human beings’ lives,” she says in the film.
“We want to believe that justice is not just some imaginary thing that we’ve conjured up inside of our minds,” Rob says now. “When you find yourself up against a system, the system, you realize how heinous and harsh and unusual such a system is, it takes you back to another space in time where people wanted to justify slavery.”
Bradley, 34, was working on “Alone,” a 2016 short about incarceration from the point of view of a single mother, when she met Fox. Bradley first began filming Fox imagining she would make a sister short to “Alone." On what was to be her last day shooting, Fox handed her 100 hours of mini-DV tapes. Her plans went out the window.
“Getting a hundred hours-worth of Fox’s family archive and personal footage was very much a thwarting of the vision I thought I had,” says Bradley. “But it was completely necessary and opened up doors that needed to be opened.”
With editor Gabriel Rhodes, Bradley sifted through the tapes and something larger took shape that captured the hard-to-see family reality of incarceration. She scored it partly with the piano solos of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, an Ethiopian nun who released a handful of records in the 1960s.
At the Sundance Film Festival in January, “Time” won the award for documentary directing. Bradley credits the films of the L.A. Rebellion by filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Julie Dash as inspiring her formally adventurous but deeply humanistic approach to filmmaking. She envisions “Time” as a kind of meeting of her film and Fox’s. Next month, she’ll present an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of vignettes interspersed with footage from 1913’s “Lime Kiln Field Day,” one of the first films made with an all-Black cast.
“I’m interested in seemingly opposing ideas or communities or individuals and thinking about filmmaking as a tool to bring these things together to create sort of third ideas or proposals for a blending and communication,” says Bradley.
Bradley kept shooting, too, including the day Rob finally got out of prison. So ecstatic to finally be reunited, Fox and Rob quickly set to making love in the backseat even with a cameraperson from the documentary crew in the front seat. You’d say they picked up right where they left off, but Fox disagrees.
“This is a well-oiled machine over here,” she says, laughing. “Our sex life at 50 is so much better.”
So is everything else. Fox sees the difference most in their children’s eyes, in their sense of security. “It’s better than I ever imagined,” she says. Early in the pandemic, Rob and Fox each contracted COVID-19, and as difficult as the experience was, they had the chance for the first time in a long time to take care of each other. They’ve since regularly posted videos of their family workouts on Instagram.
“Time” resurrected a lot of what they — and Rob, in particular — are also trying to get past. Watching and talking about the film, he says, has been both therapy and torture.
“You’re aware of a lot of things that took place because you’ve been there by way of phone, but it’s something else when you put video with audio,” he says. “You can hear the voices and hear the sounds and hear the lectures, but it’s another all together different when you can see the images and the faces.”
Bradley screened the film for the family shortly before its Sundance premiere.
“We’ve been crying ever since,” says Rob, smiling.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP