A version of this story first appeared in the Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Garrett Bradley’s “Time” (streaming on Amazon) is a moving chronicle of Fox Richardson, a New Orleans woman who for 21 years fought for the rights of her imprisoned husband Robert. The film is impressionistic, often lingering on silent moments or the quietude of nature. Yet it’s made with a keen cinematic eye, presented in desaturated black-and-white, as we move between Fox’s contemporary struggle (her husband, who refused a plea bargain, was sentenced to an absurd 60 years for robbery) and archival footage of her life over the past two decades.
Bradley’s credits include features (2014’s “Below Dreams,” which she cast via Craigslist), television (OWN’s “Queen Sugar”), and documentary shorts (The New York Times OpDoc “Alone”). “Time,” which is 81 minutes long but contains the fullness of a complex human life, has already won the 34-year-old filmmaker awards from the Sundance Film Festival, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
She spoke to TheWrap about making the film.
TheWrap: “Time” is comprised of your footage of Fox and her family, woven with archival material that Fox had filmed over the last 20 years. How did you find the balance between those?
GARRETT BRADLEY: Well, you rarely have the benefit of someone’s entire life available to you on camera. Once Fox gave me her footage, I wanted her footage and mine to be in conversation with each other. Sort of like the family and the system in a real dialogue together. I was hoping that could create a real 360-degree view of what life truly is.
This film has connective tissue with a short you made for The New York Times. How did it evolve from that project?
That was with the New York Times Op-Docs in 2017, a short 13-minute film called “Alone.” It was a film talking about incarceration from an inherently black feminist point of view, but the point of view of the family was not something that we had a lot of optics around. So I had contacted an organization called FFLIC, Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, and the co-founder and director of that organization told me, “The first person that you need to speak with is Fox.” And Fox is actually briefly in “Alone” and makes a vivid connection between slavery and the prison industrial complex.
And on the last day of filming “Alone,” Fox Rich gave you all this footage she had taken of her family?
Yes she did. Until then I had been thinking of telling her story as a sort of a sister film to “Alone,” another 13-minute short Op-Docs. But when Fox handed me about a hundred hours worth of her own personal archive of herself and her family, it became clear that this was definitely a feature. It really just broke open a whole set of possibilities and challenges that I think were, for me, such a huge opportunity in terms of my own process as a filmmaker.
Can you describe your decision to shoot in black and white?
Even the archive footage is presented that way. It goes back to a previous film I made, a 30-minute silent film called “America.” With that film, from a conceptual level, I was limiting myself to what was technically available to filmmakers at the turn of the century. And I worked on that project for about five years, so it was part of my visual language. I truly couldn’t see in color. When I started to work on “Time,” I knew the visual language was going to be immediately adopted and extended. It was a way to always keep them conceptually connected to one another.
There’s a scene where Fox is waiting on hold with the judge’s office for four minutes, only to be dismissed, and you show us all four minutes of her waiting. Why was that important to really linger there and let the space spread out?
It was one of these seemingly mundane moments that was also deeply profound. And a way for viewers to actually connect with her. A lot of people feel frustrated being on hold just for several moments when they’re calling a restaurant. Being in real time with Fox, specifically around the bureaucracy of the system, was one of the only ways in which audiences could understand what it took to be persistent.
Near the end, Fox’s husband says, “Love is: Life’s Only Valid Expression.” Is there a message of hope embedded within your film?
Absolutely. We have to understand that this moment we’re living in is no different than any moment that’s ever existed in the history of America. The new world was built on the systematic separation of Black families. It was also built on the system’s desire to remove someone’s sense of self from their individuality. And what we see in the Richardson family, and so many other families, is their ability to hold on to themselves amidst the system, to remain a unit over the course of 21 years. That’s exceptional. And so I think that the whole film, hopefully, is somewhat of a rubric for how resistance can exist in the everyday.