What Gets Lost: The Penal System’s Destruction of Familial Narrative in Garrett Bradley’s 'Time'
This editorial was written for an assignment in December 2020, and contains major analysis of Garrett Bradley's Time, streaming now on Amazon Prime Video. A complete list of cited works is at the bottom of this page.
“You don’t measure [time] in length, but rather in loss” (Ehrlich, 2020), begins IndieWire film critic David Ehrlich in his rave review of Garrett Bradley’s documentary, Time (2020). Right from the documentary’s opening minutes, Ehrlich’s words prove to be more than evident. Time opens with an extended montage of mini-DV home video footage, recorded by Sibil Fox Richardson as she documents the events of her life. The moments encompass 21 years of her raising her six children, working as a modern-day abolitionist, and fighting to free her husband, Robert Richardson, from a prison-sentence of 60 years. The events in the montage span years, and capture everything from simple events like Sibil Fox driving her twin sons to school on their first day of kindergarten to more complex moments such as Sibil Fox, breaking the fourth wall, wondering if her husband will ever gain the freedom he deserves. The six-minute opening is heartbreaking, shedding light on the atrocities of the United States of America’s penal system while playing like a letter to Robert himself, attempting to give him a picture of the life of which he was robbed. As present in its opening, and as Time constantly reaffirms, it is easy to look at the prison-industrial complex’s modern slavery through the lens of the imprisoned. It is equally important, though, to consider the perspectives of the people affected outside of the penitentiary walls – most namely, the families of the incarcerated. Film critics, such as Elrich or Slant Magazine’s Pat Brown, primarily praise Bradley’s ability to foster a “lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability” (Brown, 2020). Time is a documentary that uses that metaphor to analyze the Richardsons, the prison-industrial complex, and time itself on all levels. In a similar vein to “Venus in Two Acts”, Saidiya Hartman’s acclaimed essay about the destruction of narrative through the lens of a slave named Venus lost in the archive, Time seeks to explore what is lost, using the Richardson family’s situation to showcase the pain and horror of the “disrupted narrative” (Hartman 13) manufactured by the prison-industrial complex that hundreds of thousands of families face nationwide.
This was never supposed to be how Sibil Fox’s and Robert’s narrative played out. In 1997, right before the couple was poised to open the first urban streetwear store in Shreveport, Louisiana, their main investor pulled out, sending the two into crushing debt with no sign of fixation on the way. Out of options and with kids at home to support, the two were forced to turn to robbing a bank. Robert would be the robber and Sibil Fox would be the getaway driver. Needless to say, the robbery did not go as planned. After getting caught, the two were both sentenced to jail time – 19 years for Sibil Fox, and 60 years for Robert. While Sibil Fox was able to get out after three years in order to raise her children, Robert did not have such luck.
Sibil Fox’s and Robert’s predicament was not, and is not, a unique dilemma. Instead, their situation is one result of an economic system’s failure, paired with the rise of the newly restored and more profitable prison-industrial complex. Mass incarceration rates in the United States had been on an exponential rise since the 1970s, when Richard Nixon first announced his deeply racist and misguided “War on Drugs.” The United States’s bureaucratic failures, especially in supporting predominantly Black and minority communities, had been decades in the making. In their study of how mass incarceration affects families, researchers Bruce Western and Christopher Wilderman first explain the factors that contributed to the rise in incarceration rates in the 1980s and 1990s, when Robert and Sibil Fox received their sentence. As the two explain, there are a variety of important reasons to consider other than the well known “War on Drugs”, including the failure of urban industrialization leaving hundreds of thousands jobless, an implementation of harsher imprisonment policies, and funding towards restorative punishment instead of rehabilitative justice. Although these issues are easily misconstrued to be a partisan issue, Western and Wilderman highlight that the harsh and rapid expansion of the penal system was supported by both parties, leaving the people targeted by these policies hopeless for any sort of impartiality (Western and Wilderman 222-225).
Hartman similarly explores this idea of predetermined fate in “Venus In Two Acts”, explaining how attempts to recover Black history are always set up for failure, given that the narrative is constantly being re-written by someone else. “Disrupted narratives,” she describes, “are marginalized and derailed before they ever gain a footing” (Hartman 13). In Time, the narrative fate of Sibil Fox and Robert was decided right from the moment they decided to rob the bank. The central issue with their case though, among hundreds of thousands of others, is that the United States penal system always knowingly judges a person solely based on their character. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, exploring how today’s penal system is synonymous with slavery, renowned scholar Angela Davis explains that this tactic is utilized because it is the most promising way to gain a conviction, which is more profitable for the government and the companies associated with punishment in the United States. Because of this, the prison-industrial complex also deliberately chooses to overlook systemic factors – including one’s living, financial, and governmental aid situations – which play an equally, if not more important role. Blaming only the person for their crime, she implies, is detrimental in attempting to fix the injustices caused by these issues (Davis 92-93).
While Sibil Fox and Robert’s initial predicament is explored at multiple points throughout the documentary, both Sibil Fox and Bradley never choose to linger on these moments for too long. Time is a documentary that uses the past to explore how the present and future are affected. While the film does swirl these three dimensions together through the alternating use of old home-video footage and modern monochrome footage, “re-presenting the sequence of events in divergent stories” (Hartman 12), the documentary is more focused on what Sibil Fox does now, instead of the mistake she and her husband made all those years ago. The things she can do now is raise her kids and fight.
“My family has a very strong image, but hiding behind that is a lot of hurt. A lot of pain” (Time, 2020), the Richardson’s second son, Remington, tells us near the middle of the documentary. Even though Robert is not on screen for a majority of Time, his presence is always felt through the people he left behind. This emptiness resides in everything from commonplace moments, like Sibil Fox practicing French with one of her twins, to more direct ones, such as the long silences hanging between Sibil Fox and the clerk of the Judge deciding Robert’s case on the phone, as her patience gets shorter and shorter with every fleeting moment. Kolina J. Delgado, researching how families of the incarcerated are impacted, suggests that the absence of a family member due to incarceration can be interpreted as “the ‘social death’ of a loved one” (Delgado, 8). She describes this metaphorical death as something that destroys the entire structure of the family dynamic, including familial attachment, collectivism, and financial standing. While this may be the case for the Richardson family, Sibil Fox tries never to show it – not to her family, and certainly not to us. Near the beginning of the documentary, Bradley includes a shot of Sibil Fox taping a life-size cardboard cutout of Robert to an empty wall in the Richardson house. This image is revisited at various points throughout the film, as the possibility of Robert’s release oscillates between a surefire yes and a heartbreaking no. There is a strong hope, for the Richardson family and for the audience, that eventually Robert’s presence will be physical, obliterating the need for that metaphorical cutout. By exploring this metaphor continuously, Bradley poses an important question. After all of this time, and in a system razor-focused on profit instead of virtue, is Robert’s release even a possibility?
Time explicitly makes a link between the prison-industrial complex and slavery twice. One time is by Sibil Fox, where she self-describes herself as an abolitionist, while the other is by her mother, explaining to us how the system’s corruption failed her daughter and son-in-law. Her words are precise: “It’s almost like slavery time. A personal vendetta” (Time, 2020). To continuously expand on this idea, Bradley uses simple, lengthy, black-and-white shots to “[narrate] the time of slavery as our present” (Hartman 12). In their works, both Hartman and Bradley accomplish this feat by bouncing back between the analytical and personal, giving an analysis of the broad idea of slavery while focusing on a personal situation that exemplifies those ideas.
At the beginning of the documentary, as Sibil Fox explains over a voice-over that her husband is locked in Angola prison, Bradley uses drone-footage to capture a shot of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, a horde of about fifteen buildings surrounded by endless fields of crops. Bradley’s black-and-white shot gives the penitentiary the commonplace look of a plantation, what the now-prison was before it “was purchased by the Louisiana Government to be converted into a prison” (Pereira, 2018). Bradley does not explore the prison other than that seconds-long shot, and she does not need to. Just seeing the image once, shadowed in by the contrasts between the film’s monochrome colors, provides enough of a chilling image to recall every time Sibil Fox or one of her children even mentions that Robert is “locked up”, “in prison”, or “incarcerated.”
The “personal vendetta” (Time, 2020) that Sibil Fox’s mother mentions is more encompassing of how Time explores present-day slavery in the rest of the documentary. Most of Sibil Fox’s fight for her husband’s freedom takes place on the phone – through the bureaucracy of a government that is not focused on providing freedom to its imprisoned, for a variety of reasons. In Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed 2016 documentary 13th, which explores the idea of the capitalization of modern slavery through the prison-industrial complex, her subjects highlight the idea that the corporatization of the prison system is why it will continue through time unless reform is brought. Since the 13th Amendment, which states that slavery is banned unless it is used as a punishment against someone as a repayment for a crime, the idea of a “racial caste” (13th, 2016) has always existed. The persistence of this “racial caste” through time explains why so many of the mass incarcerated are minorities, with particularly alarming rates of Black men being jailed for unreasonably long and undeserved sentences. Michelle Alexander – a legal scholar, civil rights advocate, and an interviewee in 13th – describes in her book The New Jim Crow that even today, “we have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it” (Alexander 2). As for why the prison-industrial complex keeps expanding with no end in sight, both 13th and The New Jim Crow suggest this is due to its “industry” (13th, 2016). Restorative justice in the United States cannot exist independently of the “industry” it has created, an opportunity for already inhumane corporations to capitalize on the freedom of the imprisoned, and to control every aspect of their lives and humanities.
While 13th uses the idea of the prison-industrial complex’s “racial caste” and “industry” (13th, 2016) to leave important commentary on the lives of the incarcerated, Time takes these observations one step further. Slavery not only exists within the prison walls, Bradley’s film shows, but outside of them as well. The Richardson family has been stuck, like Robert, for all of the years he has been locked up. In different ways, they have been controlled by the endless bureaucracy of a system that is always making sure to foreclose any chance of its restoration. In a scene where she is speaking to an audience about these ideas, Sibil Fox highlights how “[she] can only visit [her] family when they say [she] can visit [her] family” (Time, 2020). She then goes on to clarify that scheduled visits with Robert are only permitted two times a month, for two hours maximum. Just as Sibil Fox tries to fix the “social death” (Delgado 8) that has been wrongly imposed on her family, it continues to be imposed on her.
In a late scene in the documentary, Robert finally makes his entrance into the film via telephone call. Bradley does not frame this to be a grand reveal, or as a satisfaction to what we have been waiting for throughout the entire film. Only Sibil Fox and her youngest son Rob Fox Richardson II are present for the call, and the whole ordeal feels tantalizingly close to a normal phone conversation. That is, besides the automated voice memo from Securus Technologies before the call reminding Sibil Fox that this is a “collect call from the Louisiana State Penitentiary”, and the same recorded voice cutting off Robert’s voice after mere seconds because “this call has ended.” It is infuriating to witness, and it is supposed to be. Millions of these monitored conversations happen every day of every year, connecting the families of the incarcerated to their loved ones. Just one of the companies paid for these services, Securus Technologies, makes 700 million dollars per year by charging prisoners three times the normal amount for a phone call (Darmiento, 2019). Although Davis does not highlight Securus specifically while exploring the prison-industrial complex in Are Prisons Obsolete?, she explains that the universal motive of the corporations in the system is to maximize profit, at whatever cost. Similar to the free-market economy they belong to, these companies achieve this goal by constantly convincing the public that their services help enforce “deserved punishment,” while continuously maintaining a disregard for the moral and “social destruction” they impose on the incarcerated (Davis 85-91). For the Richardson family and others in similar situations, this result of this is manufactured “narrative restraint” (Hartman 12), which traumatizes and keeps the families separated seemingly permanently, more than any glass walls in the visitation booth could.
In September of 2018, Robert Richardson was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He was greeted to cheers of joy from his wife, Sibil Fox Richardson, who then shared a long first hug with her husband after 21 years. Bradley’s framing of the scene, and the family reunion that follows, can easily be misinterpreted as a happy ending. But the documentary’s final few minutes, another montage of mini-DV tapes that Sibil Fox recorded, are a stark reminder that Time’s finale is not meant to elicit joy, but reflection instead. As we watch time fly backwards for the first and only time in the documentary – the same collection of events already shown throughout the film, but in a different direction – we are forced to consider both the “unrecoverable past” (Hartman 12) for the Richardsons, and what will be unrecoverable for so many others. The penal system in the United States was always poised for physical and moral failure. Its roots dig deep into the soil of prejudice, of destruction, of cruelty, and of robbing years from people with no intention of giving them back. The Richardson family’s experience is a sliver of the experiences of so many others, including experiences that will not reach the same conclusion, leaving families in limbo for more years, or in some cases, forever.
In “Venus In Two Acts”, Hartman ends her essay touching on similar ideas to these, using the heartbreaking history of Venus to describe the frustration of what will be lost forever, no matter how the archive may change over time. “We begin the story again, as always”, she says, “in the wake of [Venus’] disappearance and with the wild hope that our efforts can return her to the world” (Hartman 14). After the credits roll in Time, we too buy into this cycle of false hope, trying to evaluate every possibility of a right and just future for a system that exhibits no consideration for righteousness. As we continue to hope and pray, narratives similar to the Richardson family’s begin for so many others. The minutes are already fading away, the experiences are already disappearing, and the clock of “loss” (Ehlrich, 2020) starts ticking yet again. From here, we must hope that we, both individually and as a society, can somehow reach it before the timer reaches its end.
Time is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, and one (of many) Q&A's with director Garrett Bradley can be streamed here (courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center and the New York Film Festival).
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010.
Alone. Directed by Garrett Bradley, performance by Aloné Watts, New York Times Op-Docs, 2017.
Bradley, Garrett. Interview by Amy Taubin. Film Comment, 31 Jan. 2020,
Bradley, Garrett. Interview by Kaveh Jalinous. Under The Radar Magazine, 19 Oct. 2020,
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Slant Magazine, 20 Sep. 2020, www.slantmagazine.com/film/review-time-is-an-oblique-look-at-black-lives-undone-by-the-prison-system/.
Darmiento, Laurence. “Troubled Companies Made Him Billions. A Prison Phone Investment Made Him Enemies.” Los Angeles Times, 5 September 2019, www.latimes.com/business/story/2019-09-05/la-fi-tom-gores-securus-prison-phone-mass-incarceration.
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Pereira, Samantha. “Mass Incarceration: Slavery Renamed.” Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science, vol. 6, no. 3, 2018, pp. 42-54.
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Gates, Jr., Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Netflix, 2016.
Time. Directed by Garrett Bradley, performances by Sibil Fox Richardson, Robert Richardson II., Justus Richardson, Freedom Richardson, Remington Richardson, Mahlik Richardson, Laurence M. Richardson, Rob G. Richardson, Amazon Studios, 2020.
Time. New York Film Festival, Film at Lincoln Center, www.filmlinc.org/nyff2020/films/time/.
Western, Bruce and Wilderman, Christopher. “The Black Family and Mass Incarceration.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 621, 2009, pp. 221-242.