by Ruairí McCann
Time (2020) is Garrett Bradley’s second feature and a concept which is explained from manifold points of view and forms of expression. There’s language both subjective and emotional. How through recollection, a year can collapse down, and then suddenly, a baby boy is on the cusp of manhood, sprouting facial hair and a distinct personhood. Then there are objective terms, hard and numeral, like 18, 19, 20 years.
For Sibil ‘Fox’ Richardson, both can be hard to take. They evoke the pain of having her husband, Robert, incarcerated for his, her and their children’s lifetimes. Since 1999, when, under significant financial duress, both Fox and Rob got involved with the armed robbery of a credit union. Arrested and facing trial, Fox managed to take a plea bargain and served a few years before being paroled. While Rob’s plea went out the window and – left at the mercy of a punitive judge – he was sentenced to sixty years with no possibility of parole or suspension, for a crime where no one was physically harmed.
Bradley’s film then follows Fox in 2018 as she, now middle-aged and managing a car dealership, has become an experienced activist and gifted speaker. A prominent figure in a movement against mass incarceration as a legalized, reconstituted form of slavery. Meanwhile she and her children await a ruling on an appeal that could finally see Rob released. Bradley intercuts this present with home video footage, shot by Fox over the past 19 years and featuring her and her family in their day to day. These fuzzy and informal old images seem to have been made as a dual act of direct correspondence, from her to her husband, and in the hope that one day they will all be reunited.
Many non-fiction moving image portraits of people who are ordinary yet extraordinary when faced with trying times, from magazine show segments to individual works of cinema, often merely exalt their subject. They revel in a sheer show of strength, settling for religious-like awe and cut corners when it comes to investigating the factors and actual experience of adversity. It is not as if Time skimps on whole-hearted emotional appeal and release, nor does Bradley actively obscure the Richardson family’s story. But through this non-linear, cross-comparative structure and Bradley’s astute filmmaking, she crafts something other than just a song of praise or call to attention, no matter how much the former is rightly deserved, and the latter needed.
Through this criss-crossing of the years, there is a constant mulling over of the difference, physically and in personality, between an older, more assured Fox and her more vulnerable, younger self. Between her children as children and as young men, and, along with these changes, transcending these different points of views and periods of time, there is the agonizingly stubborn consistency of Robert’s absence and their pining for him. It demonstrates how for Fox and the Richardsons, and the multitudes in a similar position, life is annexed by not just by an individual’s imprisonment but the time and energy it takes to fight against a loved one’s case while learning to live around their absence.
Bradley accomplishes this with cinematography that hugs, with two-shots and close-ups that capture the subjects’ bodies and their surroundings in close detail. A style which works in tandem with the interpolating of different media and time periods while offsetting the potential distancing effect of such analytics with a palpable intimacy. Bradley is highly attentive to how people project themselves, especially when a camera is involved and particularly in the context of the storied and often troubled relationship between blackness and the image – the screen as well as public perception and portrayal. There is an awareness of how both can be a source of subversion and empowerment, in refuting negative stereotyping or creating new narratives and modes. Or how the image can be another venue through which hegemony asserts its reading of the world.
This preoccupation is most explicitly present in Bradley’s previous work, America (2019), a three-channel installation that has also been screened as a single channel short film. It is an anthology of black and white, 35mm vignettes that collides archival footage with fiction. Linking mundane scenarios with the portrayal of historical individuals, such as the aviator Bessie Coleman, and historical figures, like buffalo soldiers, in a work like a fast-flowing Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) – if the pleasure dome was populated by the icons and iconography of an African-American past and present.
In Time, Bradley is out of the realm of fiction and metaphorical space, and instead dealing with a specific scenario: a person who has suffered at the hands of the caracal state but had the determination and wherewithal to take that injustice public. Right off the bat, it’s established that Fox is acutely aware of her presentation and how it can be modulated, depending on its audience. As her older self is introduced preparing to shoot an advertisement for her dealership, she is seen touching up her make-up and going through every scripted action, cognizant of how she wants to come across.
This portrait of Fox is then a group one. There is her as a parent, in the home, where she must be resilient for the kids’ sake. While on the podium, she has combined her sturdiness with an appeal for sympathy and empathy, in a structured kind of performance. While on the phone with the judge’s office, she puts on politeness, in response to the conventions of an abusive institution which, like others, uses the faux-cack-handedness of bureaucracy to box people in. This aspect of the film is where Bradley’s technique becomes durational, as she steeps in and mimics the dead air and boredom of one particularly innervating call. And then on the sonic plane, through Fox’s narration, we hear her grappling with her situation and with all these different incarnations. In symphony with some of her family’s own opinions and mediating needle drops of the pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s distinctive, blues melodies.
Image is everything. The eldest son Remington says just as much, when talking about the activist’s life. And Fox’s mother Mahlik, a quick and sharp witted presence, expresses the same sentiment by relaying her memory of warning Fox to be careful about how she dressed and behaved in court, because judge and jury will take any excuse, however superficial, to skewer her. Rob, in absentia, exists more in the realm of images than not. A cardboard cut-out of him is brought from meeting to meeting, placed in front of audience as a symbol of the prison system’s exploitation of people of colour. Or else it is placed or pinned around the Richardsons’ living room, in the more personable embodiment of the missing father figure. It deepens the film’s tragedy, the sense that as more and more of the home video footage is shown, this camcorder’s gaze is another cut-out – for Rob’s eyes and ears. Though he does occasionally appear, he is more of an off-screen presence, and as Fox repeatedly addresses the lens as if it were her husband, and as Bradley assembles the footage, a gesture is being made, of restoring him to the family and life from which he has been robbed.
Not just intimate or analytical, Bradley’s filmmaking touches on an impressionism, more fully exercised in America but nevertheless present here too. In one sequence, which starts with a glide across a swamp, she cross dissolves into a low angle shot of the clouds, which then dissolves again to an eagle-eye drone shot of Angola prison. The inescapability of Rob’s terrible situation expressed by having the unnaturally straight and sharp geometry of the prison slice up the disintegrating heavens. Later, when there is more reason to hope, the sequence is repeated but in reverse and rectification, with the prison de-materialized and the heavens restored. Also late on, Fox visits a faith healer for a blessing. Her memory of her prior life and of Rob are summed up in shots of her and him from the home videos, appearing in momentary flashes, timed to the ringing of a bell. As if the past is being summoned and then cleansed, as the healer thanks Fox for giving her husband ‘the endurance to stand the test of time’. Bradley, instead, gifts a film that movingly records and examines how Fox herself stood that test.