Producers: Lauren Domino, Kellen Quinn and Garrett Bradley   Director: Garrett Bradley   Cast: Sibil Fox Richardson, Robert G. Richardson, Robert Rich II, Freedom Rich, Justice Rich, Laurence Rich, Malik Rich and Remington Rich   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B+

Documentaries about inequities in the U.S. judicial process, the industrialization of the penal system and the resultant mass incarceration of Americans (particularly African-Americans)  are hardly uncommon, but while Garrett Bradley’s does not ignore those subjects, it raises them all obliquely by presenting an impressionistic portrait of the Richardson family of Louisiana, and particularly Sibil Fox Richardson (aka Fox Rich).

The details are only briefly sketched in the film, but Sibil Fox and Rob Richardson were high school sweethearts who married, had four sons and then decided in 1997 to open a hip-hop clothing store called Culture in Shreveport.  But financial reality intruded when an investor pulled out, and to stave off a business failure along with Rob’s nephew  they robbed a credit union, Sibil serving as the getaway driver.  They were caught and jailed.

All pleaded guilty and Sibil, pregnant with twins, took a plea bargain, eventually serving more than three years of her twelve-year sentence before being paroled.  Rob’s negotiations for a plea were bungled, however, and ultimately he stood trial, was convicted and sentenced to sixty years without possibility of parole or sentence mitigation.  He was consigned to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, and after her release Sibil raised their family on her own, and undertook lobbying for her husband’s release.

Bradley had met Sibil while making her 2017 short “Alone” about Aloné Watts, a black woman who decided to marry her incarcerated boyfriend,  and decided that her dogged struggle merited fuller treatment, especially after Fox Richardson presented her with hours of home movies she had shot over the years preserving images of their children growing up so that Rob could vicariously experience their family’s life when in prison.  Bradley has bleached the color out of them and, together with editor Gabriel Rhodes, has integrated portions of them with the new footage shot by Zac Manuel, Justin Zeifach and Nisa East.

But what Bradley has fashioned is not a conventional chronological account but a sort of cinematic poem about separation that shifts back and forth from year to year and episode to episode.  It concentrates not on Robert’s “time served” but on the family’s “time lost.”   There are montages drawn from the home videos and others of Sibil’s speeches before groups of women in situations similar to hers or in front of her church congregation; there are scenes of her calling the offices of judges and lawyers and patiently talking to aides as she waits to be connected; there are sequences in which her boys, now grown, talk about their mother’s dedication and of their own plans and aspirations; there are inserts in which Sibil’s mother talks, not without criticism, about her daughter’s decisions; there are moments that show Sibil attending to her business, an auto dealership.  Eventually her patience and herculean efforts are rewarded.  After twenty-one years in prison, Robert is released and reunited with his wife and sons. 

But of course the years he’s been gone cannot be recovered.  As the film covers Sibil’s long struggle, it shows her development as an advocate of radical prison reform, arguing that a penal system that sends black men to unconscionably long terms constitutes little less than a continuation of slavery and a process that keeps families apart, just as they were disrupted by an institution that in name is legally gone.  As Robert’s homecoming approaches, we marvel at the boys who have grown up without him—one in medical school, the youngest (named Justus and Freedom) in college.

Accompanying the hypnotic visuals is an evocative score, with original music by Jamieson Shaw and Edwin Montgomery.  But many of the collages, touched with streaks of animation, are accompanied by fragments of piano pieces by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, the nonagenarian Ethiopian nun whose fluid style melds European classical models, jazz and Orthodox religious chants. 

“Time” is, of course, about the cruelty and racism that pervade the American judicial and penal systems.  But by addressing them indirectly through a portrait of a family enduring their repercussions, Bradley has made a documentary, at once inspiring and heartbreaking, that employs a deeply human story to illuminate perhaps the most persistently debilitating aspect of American society.