From Time (2020), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy Concordia Studio)

PARK CITY, Utah — Time, the new documentary from director Garrett Bradley, recently received a standing ovation from a packed house when it premiered at Sundance on January 25. Both technically inventive and deeply moving, Time is a miracle of a film that offers an affecting look at the criminal justice system’s impact on Black families, through a Black feminist lens. The third feature-length film (and first feature doc) from the award-winning Sundance alum, Bradley’s latest revolves around Sybil Richardson (affectionately known as Fox Rich), and her two-decades-long fight to get her husband released from a 60-year sentence from Louisiana’s infamous prison Angola. In their twenties, the couple struggled with serious financial trouble. Unable to identify any better options, they hastily decided to rob a bank. While Fox took a plea deal so she could be there for her sons, Robert refused and effectively ended up with a life sentence without parole.

Part of the brilliance of Time is the way it uses the tools of cinema to blur the lines between past and present. For example, it’s shot in black-and-white, giving even the contemporary footage an archival feel. The score further adds to this feeling of timelessness, ranging from a kind of slow motion vaudeville piano tune to more modern, ethereal synth-like compositions. The vaudeville music also aptly evokes the antebellum roots of today’s modern prison industrial complex. The film score is so present throughout much of the 85-minute runtime that it almost feels like a character in itself.

Fox is a courageous de facto single mom that you can’t help but root for from the moment she arrives onscreen. The camera often focuses on her face over the last 20 years, positioning her likeness as the backbone of the film’s visual language and its emotional centerpiece. Thankfully, Bradley also takes care to convey the burden of how Fox must always present herself — as a respectable and endlessly patient wife, even towards the judges and clerks who exhibit no sense of urgency or compassion for her family’s circumstances.  

Fox had the foresight to make videos about her life with the boys for her husband, and when Bradley smartly interweaves these low-resolution home movies with high-definition footage from Fox’s more recent day-to-day, the film absolutely sings. These linkages between archival footage and the family’s present-day are ultimately what make the film so transcendent yet down-to-earth. Somehow, they lighten the weight of Robert’s absence as if to assert that the criminal justice system’s excessive punishment has not completely stolen their joy.  

After the film’s premiere, the Richardson Family — Fox and Robert and their six sons — joined Bradley onstage during the audience Q&A. Wearing a fur-trimmed black dress suit and matching tuxedos, respectively, they stood in front of the mostly white audience as living, breathing examples of how the criminal justice system systematically robs Black families of one of life’s most precious commodities: time. And their presence delivered a soul-stirring reminder of why that must change.

Time (2020), dir. Garrett Bradley, will continue screening at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City Utah through February 1. 

Beandrea July (@beandreadotcom) is a freelance writer and cultural critic based in Los Angeles.