‘Time’ Review: An Inspiring and Tragic Examination of the Cost of Mass Incarceration

     October 5, 2020

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“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” the callous saying goes. But what is the cost of the time? What benefit does it have for society? And what is the price of living in an unjust society? Garrett Bradley’s stunning documentary Time explores these questions through the single narrative of Fox Rich, her husband Robert, and their six sons. Rather than approach the questions from the standpoint of data, experts, and talking heads, Bradley has us sit alongside Rich through home videos and her own documentary footage. Living with Rich and her journey, we must consider if this is really the society we want to live in where we decide that black families shouldn’t have fathers. Facts, data, etc. are all well and good, but Time shows that we can’t hide from the emotional cost when we’re talking about people’s lives.

In 1997, Fox and Robert Rich were trying to start a business, but its failing fortunes led to desperation, and that desperation led to a botched bank robbery. Fox served 3 ½ years in prison; Robert was sentenced to sixty years. Once she was released, Fox spent the next 21 years fighting to get Robert released even though he was sentenced without the possibility of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. During this time, she was also trying to raise children and document their upbringing so that Robert wouldn’t miss the growth of his children. The documentary cuts between the home video footage and footage of Fox’s fight to bring her husband home, showing time as interconnected and a tragic loss.

If you’ve never known a prisoner, it’s easy to write them all off. After all, they’re convicted criminals. But America jails more of its population per capita than almost any other nation on Earth. The chances are you’ll know an incarcerated person at some point in your lifetime. And if that’s the case, we need to understand that the penalty is inflicted on not just the felon, but on an entire family. It’s easy to put all the blame on the convicted, but Time shows that this is a system that simply doesn’t work if we truly value family in the way that we claim we do.

As a social document, Time is a damning portrait of America. For a crime in which no one was injured or killed, Robert Rich was sentenced to 60 years despite having no previous record. When you consider how many Americans were robbed blind in the financial crisis, and no one went to jail compared against Rich’s crime, giving him what amounts to a life sentence doesn’t seem like a product of a broken system, but the purpose of a system that’s working as intended. For one crime and one mistake, Robert Rich’s sons don’t get to know their father, and the state of Louisiana gets free labor until Robert Rich is dead or too old to provide it. That was the plan, and they didn’t count on the tenacity of Fox.

Watching Fox fight for her husband’s freedom is both inspiring and tragic. “The best revenge is living well!” she exclaims, but you can also see the fury and exhaustion driving her. You can see that it’s not all triumph and glory as she laments spending thousands of dollars of her family’s savings on a lawyer only to have her husband still incarcerated. And she continues to fight on so that she can be reunited with the man she loves and so that her children can know their father beyond the two times per month they’re allowed to see him for up to two hours.

It would be easy to write this story off as a tale of a disproportionate sentence and one woman’s fight to correct a single wrong, but thankfully neither Bradley nor Rich let the system off the hook. “It’s almost slavery time. Like the white man keeps you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Rich says. Time is a portrait of modern slavery. While we rarely get to see Robert, what we’re seeing is a family ripped apart so that a black man can provide essentially free labor to the state until they no longer have use of his body. We know there’s no shortage of Robert Riches; Time is the story of only one man and how his entire family doesn’t even get to live their full lives. Their lives are persevering and pushing forward while also working for his emancipation. To see Fox and her sons endure is inspiring, but you can never fully shake the rage that comes with knowing they have to overcome these barriers in the first place.

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Image via Amazon

Bradley weaves all of these narratives together beautifully, never letting the film linger too long on any single emotional beat. In just a scant 80 minutes, she’s able to show the breadth and depth of this family’s endurance and struggle in the face of monumental odds. Rendering the full film in black-and-white, she gives it a universality unmoored by time. Her footage may be “cleaner” than the camcorder footage of Fox’s home movies, but they’re connected through the monochrome that weaves a captivating tapestry of this family’s life. A haunting piano score adds another dimension to this kaleidoscopic observation of two decades of both mundane events, crushing defeats, and heartwarming triumphs. We see how the state callously tries to obliterate the Rich family, and how they refuse that obliteration.

It’s not enough to intellectually understand mass incarceration as an evil in America. You’ve got to feel it. Yes, there are some bad people and some of them need to be locked up and rehabilitated if possible. But that’s not the system Time depicts, and it’s obviously not the system we live in. What Time shows isn’t some aggressively catastrophic situation, but rather than banality of evil that afflicts the lives of people like Fox Rich and her sons. A justice system as cruel and capricious as ours will always afflict this kind of damage, and Time forces us to sit with the fallout. Yes, there are moments of triumph. Yes, love is an unstoppable force. But as you can see with Fox Rich’s story, it is cruel to demand extraordinary behavior for our nation’s ordinary cruelty.

Rating: A

Time arrives in theaters this Friday and hits Prime Video on October 16th.

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