The title of “Time,” Garrett Bradley’s intensely moving new documentary, resonates in a dozen directions at once. There is the 60 years of time, without parole, that Robert Rich is serving in a Louisiana prison for a botched bank robbery in which no one was hurt. There are the nearly 20 years he has already served in which his six sons have lived without a father in their lives. There’s the sped-up time of boys growing to men in the blink of an eye or a filmmaker’s cut. There’s the elongated time of being put on hold for endless bureaucratic minutes by a county judge’s secretary.
Above all, there is time as it is experienced by Robert’s wife, Sibil “Fox” Rich, who has spent two decades tirelessly working for her husband’s re-sentencing and freedom while bringing up those six sons while also working at an auto dealership. On top of that, she holds speaking tours that combine a fury at the United States of Incarceration with the holy fervor of a self-empowerment revival meeting.
Fox Rich is a walking, talking movie in and of herself, which Bradley certainly understood when she set out to make a short film about her. When Rich handed the director a bag of videotapes she had shot over the course of her husband’s imprisonment, Bradley realized she had a feature on her hands, but “Time” is not a cut-and-dried chronology. Rather it’s a poetic rumination on atonement and endurance, one that chops up and reorders time itself to give us a powerful portrait of a woman who refuses to take no for an answer.
Robert Rich robbed a bank in 1997 because he was desperate for money after a business venture collapsed; Fox herself served three years for driving the car. There are no excuses for stupid choices and criminal behavior — especially from Fox’s weary mother — but only anger toward a justice system’s heavy and unequal hand. When we see Fox at one of her speaking engagements, she’s passionate about her own situation but just as forceful about a country that imprisons its Black citizens at a far higher rate and for far longer prison terms than whites. Her message is straightforward: Don’t let them beat you down. Have pride. Have hope. Keep pushing. Never stop.
Through Gabriel Rhodes’s remarkably skillful editing, “Time” juxtaposes the young Fox in 1999, shell-shocked from events and pregnant with twins, with her evolution over the years. Among other things, the film’s a tart lesson in African American code-switching, with the tone and vocabulary of Rich’s speaking voice — even the depth of her N’awleans accent — changing depending on whether she’s serving clients as a personal car buyer, cajoling prison and court officials over the phone, exhorting audiences at her lectures, or interacting with her sons.
About those sons: They’re amazing and testimony to the importance of having at least one tireless, strong, and loving parent. We watch Remington graduate from dental school, Freedom demolish an opponent in a high school debate — keep your eye on this kid — and Justus study French with the seriousness of a scholar. The youngest, Robert II, has a heartbreaking moment when he tells his mother that he’ll shoulder her load any time she needs.
Through inter-cutting, the use of black-and-white visuals, and a soundtrack that combines gorgeous original music (by Jamieson Shaw and Edwin Montgomery) with the rolling, proto-Big Easy piano of Ethiopia’s Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, “Time” ironically achieves a sense of timelessness. Or maybe it reflects the way Rich’s life has been put on pause for two decades even as it has moved forward and up — a hiatus without the man she loves, a holding of breath until he is free. “Time” screens at the Kendall Square Theater this week and comes to Amazon on Oct. 16. If for no other reason, see it for an ending that may leave you in tears before it rewinds time itself, with unparalleled grace, to start once more from the beginning.
Directed by Garrett Bradley. Starring Fox Rich. At the Kendall Square, starting Oct. 9, and on Amazon, starting Oct. 16. 81 minutes. PG-13 (some strong language).