Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
“Desperate people do desperate things” Sibil Fox Richardson explains at the beginning of Garrett Bradley’s documentary Time, but how long should a punishment really last? When her husband was sentence to an extreme 60-years in jail for armed robbery, Richardson was left to raise their six children alone, and Time examines the 20-years the family has spent fighting for a reduction in his sentence.
In a way this is more Richardson’s film than Bradley’s, filled with home movies and recordings of her speaking, the culmination of two decades of a publicity machine that has unrelentingly campaigned for Robert’s release. And Richardson has spent every New Year during this time knowing that this will be the year he comes home, a belief that Time shows has entirely consumed the family’s life during this period.
What is interesting about these candid interviews is that this is not a typical story of injustice. To support their failing hip hop clothing store, Sibil admits that she drove her husband and his nephew to the bank robbery they were all convicted for in 1997, but while she accepted a plea bargain for which she served three years, Robert refused the 12 he was offered and got six decades instead. The question for Richardson and Bradley is does this punishment really fit the crime, and like Steve McQueen’s film Mangrove, Time wonders just who is justice for?
Cutting between home movies, filmed talks and Bradley’s recent glossier footage, the documentary is given a visual consistency by using a black and white treatment that puts the varied parts of this story together, aligning the perspectives of Richardson, her sons, mother and the audiences who have attended her talks. The arbitrary nature of time and of Robert’s sentence is something that Bradley emphasises by moving back and forth through the years and effectively jumbling this family’s experience.
The point is to demonstrate the dual effect that Robert’s enforced absence has created; in one sense his children have never or barely known their father’s presence in the home, their lives continuing and being shaped without him. But Sibil’s determination has equally made them all aware of the void at the centre of their family, it has entirely designed their childhood and development as adults.
With a partial focus on two of their sons, the viewer sees young Richard graduate and head to university to study political science where he becomes a debater keen to influence the criminal justice system to effect positive change for black communities, while one twin Justus reflects on the nature of time as he learns the piano. Some of this is tempered by Sibil’s mother who still seems to retain a lingering disappointment in her daughter for committing the original crime, admitting she barely knows the man she is married to – how that dynamic will play out when the family is reunited is perhaps the subject of another film.
At 80-minutes Time reveals the impact of America’s uneven justice system on the families left behind with excessive sentencing, parole denials and only two visits per month. Although its celebration of Sibil’s persistent hope plays down (though never hides from) the fact that an armed robbery was committed, Bradley’s film and the Richardson family have spent 20-years wondering whether the cost of one stupid act should really be this high?
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October