He Got 60 Years Behind Bars. She’s Fighting for His Life.
Filmmaker Garrett Bradley talks to Cassie da Costa about “Time,” a powerful new doc chronicling Fox Richardson’s fight to free her husband from Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Garrett Bradley’s Time, streaming on Amazon Prime beginning Oct. 16, arrives as full of grace as it does force. Fox Richardson’s (she goes by Fox Rich) husband, Rob, has been in prison at Louisiana State Penitentiary—the infamous facility better known as Angola—for 20 years, following a 60-year sentence for a bank robbery where no one was injured. Richardson was the getaway driver for the robbery, and received a two-and-a-half-year sentence. A public speaker and abolitionist, Rich’s words ring out throughout Time and guide its movements. Her sons, growing up without the presence of their father, also develop skills in oration and introspection as they grow older, abilities which further shape how their story is told on screen and the very painful personal experience of incarceration refracts through their family’s collective memory.
In this way, Bradley’s film is also the Richardson family’s film, and by design—for the filmmaker, direct collaboration with subjects isn’t merely a stint or methodology, but the core and drive of the work. This approach makes for an unforgettable cinematic experience that is as rooted in the cause of collective liberation (from prison and its many complexes) as it is in the individual experiences of the Richardsons. The personal is not necessarily universal, but it must—and does—reverberate.
The Daily Beast spoke to Bradley over the phone about how she developed her relationship with the Richardson family, how she understands her work both within and beyond the framework of social practice, and what the family’s home videos did to “revolutionize” the project.
One thing that really struck me in watching Time were the moments (in voiceover, like most of the film) where Fox’s kids give their accounts of where they are emotionally and how their father’s incarceration has affected them. How did you collaborate with the family to get these testimonies and how did you arrive at incorporating them in the way you did?
On a practical level, the approach was just to offer some prompts to everybody in the family who were with us that day. The questions were, “What does time mean to you?” “What does it represent?” And the idea was to keep these prompts as broad and open as possible. That felt important to me because I hadn’t thought of the title of the film yet. But time clearly is a huge part of how we’re understanding both oppression and resistance throughout the film. And I loved the idea of the structure of the film itself not being what defines time, but to have those that are in the film offer their perspectives—in a way that felt intimate and internalized to a certain extent, because I think so many of the themes around the film are the externalization of time.
And each one of the Richardson kids are great speakers and they certainly get that from both their mom and their dad. And that of course comes from Miss Peggy [their maternal grandmother] who’s an educator, a teacher. I think we got very lucky that they were willing to do that for the film.
There are also these moments that I felt I wasn’t necessarily consciously trying to illustrate while filming, but became very clear in the editorial process. They end up showing the benefit of having intergenerational dialogue within one family over the course of decades and in the context of one issue. Miss Peggy has a very specific perspective on how her daughter, Fox, should have managed the fallout from the crime itself as well as the specific event. And Fox approached that same moment in a way that was unique to her. And I think you see the sons—like Freedom, for instance—certainly wanting to combat the same issue of incarceration and injustice in their own ways. And each of those things cause these reflections on the time periods that we’ve lived in—they become reflections of our generation, the same issue and how we maneuver through those circumstances differently.
You said that you weren’t necessarily conscious of this dynamic as you were filming. So how did you get the family to buy-in, in terms of a process that wasn’t already delineated?
Even if I don’t always know how a specific moment or idea is going to turn out, I always have a very clear idea of what my intention is—why I’m doing what I’m doing and why it cannot be separated from my initial intention as well as from the “why” of the people that I’m working with. So, that’s the first question that I ask people when I’m considering developing a project, which you will inevitably be doing for several years: “Why do you want to do this?” And I very much stay in contact with people that I work with. So it’s a lifetime investment; it’s not just within the ecosystem of this one film.
And so when I asked the family, Why do you want to make this film? What is it that you think is important to be said? The sacrifice of having cameras around you all the time, is it worth it? What’s the goal? Their response was, “Our story is the story of 2.3 million other American families. And we feel that our story can offer hope to those who are directly affected, as well as those who need to know what’s going on.” So then my job is to internalize that and then find a way to articulate and express it as something that is in alignment with how I also feel in a visual space and cinematic space. It’s a matter of being really transparent about what you do now and what you don’t know: Like, I’m interested in doing voiceover and filming it in this way, because it’s tied to the specific intention that we’ve talked about. Will it work? Will it not work? I don’t know. That’s always really important. That’s an ongoing conversation.
In the afterlife of a film, there’s this very specific industry-oriented way of thinking through the release and the possible impact and meaning of the film, but I’m curious just from your vantage point—and also from what you can represent of the family’s vantage point—what is your hope for the continued life of Time?
When we consider the idea of hope, it can be very vague. Like, what does hope actually mean? And what does it mean for a film to offer hope to a community? I think for me, what I’m hoping the film actually does in the world is offer really concrete examples of resistance that are attainable, and that are seemingly mundane, right? Which are love, the ability to maintain unity over the course of 21 years and over the course of anyone’s incarceration, and the ability to hold onto one’s sense of individuality within a system that is directly intended to remove you from your sense of self and your own empowerment—that these are things that all of us, whether we see ourselves in Fox or not, could do and are doing. So it is both an offering of what can be and an illumination of what already is.
I was talking to one of my friends who is a playwright who tells stories about people in various health-care systems. And we were talking about the idea of social practice art, and how there are two main reactions to it by artists. One is, This is like a ghettoized way of talking about art. Which is to say the label itself tries to separate works of art that are directly concerned with social issues from art in general. The other reaction is that referring to certain kinds of art as “social practice” is a way of embracing that process as unique and worth studying and celebrating as its own distinct thing. Given that this idea or label of social practice could easily be applied to your work—you collaborate directly with your subjects, and an aesthetic process is part of this collaboration, though the focus is social issues—I was wondering what your thoughts about it are?
There are a couple of different things that you’re bringing up that are super interesting. I think that, first and foremost, the chronological and the literal can coexist with the abstract. And I think both actually reinforce and support one another. When you understand a film, like 13th, for instance—that film is already in conversation with Time and Time is in conversation with 13th. It would be amazing to screen both of them together, right? Because we need both, we need to create as many different entry points as possible for people to understand incarceration in the U.S. And by nature, all of us as human beings have our own unique ways of understanding things and tapping into compassion. We have these sort of inner rules. And so some are going to need the facts and some people are going to need the effects to understand. So the two must coexist with one another. And I think the reason why I’m working in a way that I work is because I don’t think I could do it any other way.
The other thing that is unique when we talk about frameworks specific to stories around incarceration, is that we have to understand that 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated—that is a number, and numbers can also be abstract. It can be very difficult for people to fathom what that means. How do we actually visualize and understand the magnitude of that? For example, the protests against the Vietnam War were a result of people being able to see war for the first time on the news, right? And now we live in a world of the green screen. So there’s a sort of sitting neutrality around this. And we can think about the role of technology with police brutality and how that certainly has helped create an upsurge in protest that we saw this summer. But it brings the question then, well, where are the optics and visibility around 2.3 million people being incarcerated? There is very little, and that’s by design. The only evidence of a seemingly invisible population is with the family or with those that are serving time on the outside. So I think that these different approaches to telling these stories have to coexist. My work is often in response to those fundamental ideas that change depending on what the work is about.
What was the most surprising thing for you once the film was made that you saw in it?
I didn’t know that any of the archive [Fox Richardson’s home videos] existed at all while I was making the film. So that was an incredible surprise. It certainly revolutionized the entire approach in the way in which I was thinking about making the film.
But in many ways the editing process was a reinforcement of what I felt and what I had. I had been observing those closest to me. And this film came out of the making of another film called Alone, which I made with Aloné Watts, who was the partner of somebody who I made a film with in 2014. She was in the midst of trying to decide how to move forward with her life while her partner awaited trial at a private prison for a year and a half. And there’s the irony of her feeling isolated, in her not feeling like she had people that she could go to because of the stigma around incarceration while there are so many people who are experiencing this. So, with Time, it wasn’t so much that I was surprised. I think I was leaning toward things I would see and was aware of.
Could you talk a little bit more about learning about the archive and how it revolutionized the project?
Part of the interesting challenge in making films that I’ve been thinking about a lot is that you can only tell a story one frame at a time and in two-dimensional space. But the world that we live in and who we are as individuals is 360 degrees—there’s a lot of context and there’s a lot of history that goes into any given moment. So how do you show that in the confines of cinema and the confines of filmmaking? That was something that I saw as a huge obstacle in the making of the film, and when the archive became available to the project, it really allowed for there to be this 360-degree experience where we could see and feel the true evolution of an individual and of a family, so that we could understand how the past was informing the present moment and informing the future, which is how life is actually lived.