'Time' Clocks An Uneven & Incomplete Portrait Of Injustice [Sundance Review]

From the outside, Fox and Rob Richardson looked like the young couple who had it all. The high school sweethearts got married, were ready to move into their first home, and with twins on the way, they would soon start a family. However, their fledgling hip-hop clothing business in Shreveport, Louisiana was facing financial difficulties. It’s never quite clear how or why they decided to rob a bank to try and solve their problems, but that foolish mistake cost them immensely. Arrested and convicted, Fox took a plea bargain and was out in a few years. Sentencing guidelines for armed robbery at the time were wide-ranging, and with the judge having 5-99 years at their disposal to hand out, Rob got hammered with 60 years. For the next two decades, Fox raised a family — six sons in total — on her own, while steadfastly fighting to get her husband out of jail. It’s a potentially fascinating story, one with clear avenues into the systemic gaps and failures of the prison-industrial complex. Unfortunately, director Garrett Bradley’s “Time” is so fixated on the poetic possibilities of the title, it leaves the documentary’s central subject behind.

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The burden of waiting and feeling time evaporate as months and years and decades go by, and the exhaustion of fighting for the freedom of someone you believe has been unduly punished by the system are all keenly felt in “Time.” Utilizing an astonishing archive of home video footage shot by Fox Richardson aka Fox Rich, Bradley mostly eschews standard documentary storytelling techniques to weave together a more sensory portrait of time passing.

Both in the past and present, Fox chronicles the lives of her family and children, with the milestones and memories becoming happy markers in a larger overarching wave of disappointment. Fox has worked hard to earn the forgiveness of her family and those affected by the bank robbery, but the prison system doesn’t have the rubrics to weigh the value of self-reflection. The business model is not about mercy, but bodies, more often than not belonging to people of color and the poor. Fox has managed to rebuild herself into a successful businesswoman and activist, but her greatest project, her husband’s freedom, is the journey that “Time” wants the viewer to invest in. However, it remains, as it does in this paragraph, secondary to the film’s more impressionistic ends.

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The result is a viewing experience that is cumulatively frustrating, leaving far too many details about almost every aspect of the crime and Robert’s subsequent incarceration unaddressed and unacknowledged. Over the course of the film, one of the most surprising pieces of information that’s revealed rather pointedly by Fox’s mother is that Robert actually turned down a plea bargain for 12 years in prison. Of course, the log-jammed justice system has turned plea bargaining into a tool to expedite cases, but it means in this case that Robert lost his gamble and wound up with a 60-year sentence. But why did he turn down the offer in the first place? It’s also left unaddressed what happened to Rich’s nephew, who was their accomplice in the robbery. Was anybody fighting for him? What turned Fox — who we see giving empowering speeches and promoting her events on social media, and who describes herself as an “abolitionist” — into an activist, beyond working on behalf of her husband? What do their children think of joining the fight to free their father, a man they’ve never met? There are layers upon layers of emotional complexity, that has certainly only grown more intricate over the years and decades, along with straightforward procedural information that is left glaringly and disappointingly out of the frame. One wonders at the revelations a more traditional documentary approach would have revealed.

Fox firmly believes that the broken prison system, as it currently stands, does a further disservice to prisoners by leaving forgiveness out of the equation in determining their possibilities for parole. It’s a thorny proposition. Forgiveness requires an honest accounting and acceptance on all sides of what has transpired. “Time” wants the viewer to empathize with the very real turmoil that Fox and her family have endured. But without a completely transparent picture, the audience is kept just distant enough from fully grappling with the sense of justice that Fox believes she and Rob deserve. [C]

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