April 18, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Fight against justice system is fueled by emotion in ‘Time’

As its title suggests, “Time” measures a temporal span. It’s the two decades that its charismatic and seemingly indefatigable subject, Sibil Fox Richardson, spent working toward the release of her husband, Robert Richardson, from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. But the film, streaming on Amazon Prime, also presents a particular aesthetic challenge.

It’s one that Garrett Bradley, the New Orleans-based filmmaker whose documentary made her the first Black woman to win the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival last year, puts at the core of her work, which explores “how past, present and future can all collapse into an understanding of the present moment.”

Bradley spoke as she prepared a solo exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem. Running through March 21, it features a multi-channel version of her film “America,” which draws footage and inspiration from the unreleased 1913 film “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” the earliest surviving film with an all-Black cast.

“It was my first attempt,” she says of “America,” “at trying to dig at one of the inherent challenges of making films, which is you are working in a two-dimensional space and you can only tell a story one frame at a time in a chronological way.” She had always intended the project, screened in 2019 as a 30-minute silent shot on luminous black-and-white film, to be an installation.

“America’s” monochrome design carries over to “Time,” as does an integral relationship with archival material that bears an essential message about the Black experience in America. In this instance, that’s some 18 years of home videos made by Fox Rich — as the activist-entrepreneur now calls herself — whom Bradley had been filming for a follow-up to her 2017 short film “Alone,” likewise a black-and-white documentary about incarceration and its effect on Black families and communities. “I was shooting the whole time thinking I was making another 13-minute short film,” Bradley said. In a moment, the entire project took on a bold new scale.

“When Fox handed me the archives, it extended from the same process I’m frankly just obsessed with,” Bradley said. “The idea of trying to mimic the 360-degree experience in which we live life. … That we are beings made up of so many moments that led up to the one we are experiencing. The archive allowed that to come to life. It allowed us to see the evolution and revolution of who Fox was. It added a lot of these questions of how to tell stories in a more holistic way.”

The videos, a chronicle intended for an absent husband and father, are limned with intimate glances and resonant moments of unguarded emotion. They open up a continuum of experience as Fox Rich raises six children and pursues Rob’s release from a 60-year sentence for an armed robbery (for which she also served 3½ years, in a plea deal). The story builds to the moment, in September 2018, when Rob was freed. The focus, however, is not on the juvenile felony. Rather, the film deeply personalizes the historical perspective Ava DuVernay brought to the issue of racial inequality and the carceral state in her 2016 documentary “13th.”

Working with editor Gabriel Rhodes, Bradley cut together the footage to achieve that goal in the most organic way possible.

“Garrett said in the beginning, ‘Make the film flow like a river,’” Rhodes recalled. The approach, he said, was to “let the sense of time not be ‘then and now’ but be ‘always.’ The past and present could exist on the same plane. … Memory exists as something that happened then but also lives in our mind now.”

Rhodes, whose credits include archive-enriched documentaries like “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” and “The Witness,” shared a key trait with Bradley, which animated a collaborative edit that often was conducted long-distance. “She had a very inane sense of rhythm and composition. She had a very musical ear,” he said. “I’m a musician and have a musical ear. I think editing is being musical, in a lot of ways.”

Bradley also came up with what she called “pillars” to help her shape the film. “Fox said to me, ‘My story is the story of 2.3 million other American families and our stories can offer hope.’” Grappling with the generalized nature of the word, the director identified three themes to help her distill the concept of hope into something cinematic.

“The first one is unity,” she said. “Their ability to stay together over the course of 21 years. [Then] Love. Thinking about love as something that isn’t necessarily abstract but rather concrete. And their sense of individuality, holding on to who they were as individuals amidst a system that is intended to break them down.”

The filmmaker, who has called New Orleans home for a decade, would be pleased to see more such work on screen. “This isn’t a monolithic experience,” she said. “It’s diverse and this is just one example, hopefully that can offer hope.”