★★★★☆

Positing the question of whether the principal objective of incarceration is punishment, rehabilitation or undue persecution, Garrett Bradley’s Time is another vital addition to a growing canon of films to pointedly critique the US legal and prison systems’ unjust treatment of people of colour.

If Ava DuVernay’s ground-breaking 2016 film, 13th, provided the macro, a sense of the weight of history and enormity of a nationwide issue, Bradley’s very impressive feature-length documentary debut is a microcosm that explores twenty years in the life of one family’s lived experience. No less stirring or moving than its far-reaching antecedent, the 80 minutes we spend with Sibil Fox Richardson and her sons amply covers a lifetime in the shadow of one fateful day in 1997. With a family of four boys, Sibil and husband Robert have a house and a budding clothing store of their own. Sibil’s firm belief in the American Dream – instilled in her by her mother – seemed to be paying off.

However, with the business not bringing in the money needed to provide for a growing family – Sybil pregnant again with twins – the decision to hold up a bank in Shreveport, Louisiana is a fork in the road that would forever change their course. “Desperate people do desperate things. It’s as simple as that,” says Sibil, who – given her pregnancy – took a plea deal of twelve years, serving three-and-a-half; Robert, refusing the plea, received sixty. Whilst there is no doubt as to culpability, it is the length of sentence which Sibil and Bradley’s film set in their sights. How and why can the state impose such a hefty penalty, and would the same punishment be meted out to a white offender?

This question is neither asked, nor answered explicitly, but the subtext is clear. Though there certainly is remorse for their actions, if not sympathy for the man behind bars, it is the effect of this void on his family where the heart, and hurt, of Time lies. The visual metaphors of empty frames, visions of clouds, woodland, and the changing of seasons bleached of their colour by monochrome photography resonates throughout.

Demonstrating both the lack of a full and fulfilled existence and the timelessness of this story – which will resonate with many families across the US – the black and white cinematography is seamlessly interwoven with years of camcorder footage taken by Sibil, so that Robert could see his sons grow up, though not be there with them. Playgrounds and fairgrounds, birthdays and first days are recorded for posterity, but are tinged with bitter poignancy.

And the sadness in all of the boys’ eyes speaks to the elephant in the room, which is their father’s absence from it. The squared aspect of the home video, and close-ups in more recent footage, isolate the Richardsons in a state of immobility, while the world continues to turn and lives move on around them. At the other end of telephones, court clerks and secretaries, secure in a steady 9 to 5 existence are polite but unhelpful. An infuriating lack of pro-activity in chasing the necessary paperwork or judgements to appeal Robert’s sentence, to bring him home, demonstrate the lack of empathy, of basic humanity which people, often women, in Sibil’s position have to fight from one day to the next, one year to the next.

It is in her unerring drive, determination and courage that hope is found here. The ability to raise such eloquent, hard-working and successful young men, ostensibly alone, against the odds is remarkable, and provides a face to statistics so easily glossed over. Home footage played in reverse at the film’s closing acknowledges that the past cannot be changed, but perhaps there is more reason to be positive, and even see the return of colour, for a brighter future.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63