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Criminal Justice

‘Time’ documentary explores the toll of incarceration on families

Time—much like freedom—emerges as a right denied to those both inside and outside.
Tamar Sarai Davis October 8th, 2020
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Fox Rich has experienced the impact of incarceration in a number of different ways. She was incarcerated herself for over three years. She’s been mothering children with an incarcerated parent for almost two decades, and during that time has also been supporting, loving, and ardently working to secure the early release of her incarcerated husband, Rob. When the public discusses women like Fox—partners, children, parents, loved ones of those who are incarcerated—it’s often solely in relation to the financial burden that they shoulder and the sacrifices made to pay for phone calls, video messages, care packages, and commissary meals. Those are important dimensions of that experience, but in Garrett Bradley’s new documentary, Time, a different cost of incarceration is explored: the loss of moments both small and large that one is never able to recoup, and the seemingly never-ending wait experienced by families whose chance at reuniting is held in the hands of the state.

Time weaves together archival footage taken from the earliest days of Rob's sentence all the way up to 2018. In interviews with Fox, we learn about the failed armed robbery attempt in 1997 that she and Rob staged to get money they needed to start a business. “Desperate people do desperate things,” Fox explains. 

The criminal charges stemming from the attempted robbery carried a sentence of up to 99 years without opportunity for probation or parole. While Fox took a plea deal and served three and a half years, Rob went to trial and was sentenced to 60 years in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison.

Shot entirely in black and white, Time blurs the past and the present—an effect made all the more powerful by the Fox’s unwavering love for her husband. Scenes from decades ago of Fox tearfully speaking to Rob through the camera and expressing her love for him could almost be from the present day. However, as much as the family's commitment to securing Rob's early release serves as a constant, it's clear that time does not stop for them. At the film’s start, Fox is shown pregnant with her twins, Justus and Freedom—in the present-day footage, they're approaching their 18th birthday.

Fox herself is also shown maturing and growing. Physically, gray hairs begin to frame her youthful face, and she has blossomed professionally. Earlier footage shows her younger self at the church pulpit delivering a powerful speech where she seeks forgiveness from her mother, children, her pastor, and her congregation for her involvement in the robbery. As time progresses, she's honed her ability to touch audiences and is shown giving a series of motivational speeches, commanding crowds, and guiding them to confront the injustices and indignities of incarceration.

As the film depicts the the steady progress of Fox becoming the woman and mother she needs to be for both herself and for her children, who grow into young men, Bradley also shows how time slows down and accelerates at different moments for families of incarcerated loved ones, often prolonging their agony and stealing away precious moments.

A phone call shared between Fox and Rob feels far too short, and all the more when it's abruptly ended by an automated message from Securus, the largest prison telecom company operating across the United States. In contrast, when Fox is left on hold during a call about the status of a judge's decision in Rob's case, those few minutes of waiting feel like a lifetime.

This waiting, longing, and dreaming takes place not in those small, brief moments but also stretched over long periods of time.

In a conversation between Fox and a member of her church, the two discuss how long they've been waiting for the state to cut the correctional budget, in hopes that doing so will allow for the early release of some inside.

“We said that during Katrina, we said that during the last great flood, we said that before Katrina when oil and gas plummeted,” says Rich. “My husband and I have been saying ‘Oh, this is going to be the year that they'll have to,’ but baby, they will cut from education, they will cut from health care, but they will not cut that budget.”

Another scene shows Fox exploring how the calendar year brings the same cycle of hope and disappointment. New Year celebrations, she says, are filled with promise that Rob might be released that year, but by each Thanksgiving that hope proves to be a lie.

When Rob finally returns home towards the end of the film after being granted clemency, he's met with kisses, wonderment, and celebration from his wife, his children, and his community of friends and family. A montage of old home video footage featuring his children playing is rewound. The youngsters are shown riding their bicycles in reverse and later, jumping on and off their beds backwards, flying off of it like superheroes. The camera is able to reverse time in a way that's impossible to do in real life.

Despite rejoicing over Rob’s return, viewers are reminded that coming home 40 years early also means coming home 20 years too late to fully indulge in moments that can never be experienced in the same way again.

In a rumination on the meaning of time towards the middle of the film, Fox and Rob's son Justus explains: “Time is what you make of it, time is unbiased, time is lost, time flies. This situation has just been a long time.” Against the backdrop of mass incarceration, time—much like freedom—emerges as a right denied to those both inside and outside. Like so many other rights, it's one that is often left unconsidered and taken for granted by those who are privileged enough to exercise it.

Time will debut in select theaters on Oct. 9 and will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning Oct. 23.


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