A Filmmaker Who Sees Prison Life With Love and Complexity

The Culture Issue – The New York Times

Garrett Bradley has made a documentary, “Time,” that stubbornly resists all the easy ways of thinking about incarceration in America.

By Ismail Muhammad

October 6, 2020

When I first watched “Time,” Garrett Bradley’s feature documentary debut, I found myself confused at what exactly I was audience to. Was this, in fact, a documentary? Or an art film? Or a drama? “Time” follows Sibil Richardson, known as Fox Rich, a mother of six and a formerly incarcerated woman, as she works to free her husband, Rob, from the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he’s in the midst of a mind-boggling 60-year sentence for an armed robbery where no one was hurt. The first images we see are not Bradley’s but Fox Rich’s: a riot of black-and-white home recordings that stutter-step through time. One moment Fox Rich addresses the audience, vowing that she and her family will survive despite her husband’s sentence. As proof, she offers her pregnant belly — she’s carrying twins. Time speeds up, and we see her eldest son, Remington, as a toddler, grinning hugely before diving into a pool. Then time retreats as Fox Rich reminisces about how Rob’s smile snared her heart. We feel her enormous longing.

Soon it’s 20 years later, and Fox Rich is framed by Bradley’s own artful, lovingly composed shots. She’s staring into a monitor in taut concentration as she looks at footage of herself in a commercial for the car dealership she now owns, her hair a bit grayer but her eyes sharp. “What I wanted to do was be able to see what I look like,” she tells the man who’s ostensibly directing the commercial — but the viewer can see she is the one in control. In miniature, the exchange captures the animating dynamic of “Time,” the way the film wants to trouble the line between the director and her subject. The next image we see is of Fox Rich as well, but it’s the back of her head as she gets her hair straightened, as if Bradley is telling us that though she is presenting Fox Rich’s image, that image is Fox Rich’s own to shape.

Fox Rich in “Time” (2020).
Fox Rich in “Time” (2020).Credit…Amazon Studios

A week after watching the film (which is a co-production of The New York Times), I met Bradley in Southern California (out of concern for her privacy, she asked that I not reveal her specific location). She landed there after evacuating from Rome, where she had a yearlong fellowship, at the height of the pandemic. Bradley was dressed in jeans and a simple white button-down shirt, and I was struck by the softness of her gaze, the considered poise with which she moved through space. As we talked, Sonny Rollins snaked out of a speaker somewhere. A copy of the Black Liberation Army activist Assata Shakur’s autobiography lay open on the floor, spine up so Assata was watching the proceedings. As we sat talking on opposite ends of a couch, Bradley asked as many questions as she answered, and every so often she’d lapse into thoughtful silence.

“It’s been a difficult time,” she said of quarantine. “So much of my work is about the interaction and exchange with people.”

Questions of isolation and belonging cast long shadows over Bradley’s work. The 34-year-old filmmaker doesn’t just invite her subjects — especially Black women wrestling with incarceration — to contribute around the edges of a project she has already conceived. Instead, her films are occasions for a community’s vision to find expression. To the extent that her formally unruly films are documentaries at all, they document the social spaces in which Black thought takes shape. We’re in a moment when the predominant image of Black life, facilitated by the recordings of Black people’s deaths at the hands of police officers, threatens to become one of victimhood, martyrdom and repression — anything but the complicated and vibrant lives that we actually live in this nation. In turning its attention to Black women as they struggle, love and survive right now, Bradley’s “Time” pushes back, making the representations by which we “know” Black life unfamiliar to us.

Bradley’s first film was a simple one — a dialogue between her mother and father. She made it when she was a 16-year-old student at Brooklyn Friends, the daughter of two visual artists who divorced shortly after they married. She wasn’t terribly close with her father, a painter and sculptor, and she had questions about how her parents’ relationship to their work played a role in their split. Armed with a Hi8 camcorder on loan from her school, she set out to get answers.

“I’d get my camera, and I’d interrogate him basically and ask all these questions I just didn’t feel safe asking without a camera.” She laughed. “Then I’d go home and ask my mom, do a cross-examination and see what’d come out of that.” The film was a fulcrum of her method, inviting multiple perspectives into one conversation, thereby arriving at a deeper truth.

In 2007, Bradley moved from New York to Los Angeles to attend film school at the University of California. It was a lonely period. She felt alienated amid L.A.’s distended landscape. Afraid of driving, she resorted to taking the bus down Sunset from her Silver Lake apartment to U.C.L.A.’s Westside campus, an hour’s ride in traffic. But when she finally arrived on campus, she didn’t feel at home there. While Bradley’s interests already tended toward the experimental, she struggled with the program’s emphasis on the how-tos of production. There wasn’t much time spent doing what Bradley really wanted to do: watch some movies.

During her first year, she met the filmmaker Billy Woodberry, who worked in the program’s equipment office and taught at CalArts. A cigarette-smoking cinephile, he invited her to watch films with him. “Whatever he was watching, I’d want to sit next to him and watch, too,” she recalled. Woodberry himself studied in the same film program, which beginning in ’60s attracted a group of young Black filmmakers who came to be called the L.A. Rebellion, gathering in and around U.C.L.A. after the Watts uprising.

These filmmakers were only a few miles away from the Hollywood dream factory but felt that they existed in a different world. They repurposed the techniques they discovered in international cinema in order to represent the realities of the Black neighborhoods that exploded in 1965. Many of these films told stories of working-class Black families (often portrayed by nonprofessional actors) through loosely structured, peripatetic narratives that turned on rigorous repetition of striking images, as with the motif in Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” of crying Black boys, or shots in Woodberry’s “Bless Their Little Hearts” of the crumbling postindustrial South Los Angeles ghetto. Shorts like Julie Dash’s “Four Women” and Barbara McCullough’s “Water Ritual #1” eschewed narrative in favor of dance and ritual in order to draw a connection between an African diaspora, the enslaved past and the Black present. Deeply collaborative in nature (the movement’s members often starred in or worked behind the scenes of one another’s films), the L.A. Rebellion was determined to offer representations that Hollywood had no interest in surfacing.

For Bradley, watching these films “was a validating experience,” she told me. “Maybe I wasn’t messing up. Maybe I was experimenting. Maybe there was order to what felt like complete madness.”

The Rebellion’s influence on her work is clear in “Below Dreams,” Bradley’s 2014 narrative feature debut. Shot in a loose vérité style as a series of entwined stories about young adults navigating economic insecurity, it meanders, largely allowing its images to tell the stories of Jamaine, an unemployed single father desperately trying to secure a job; the single mother, Leann; and Elliott, a New York transplant. Elliott might be a stand-in for Bradley herself, who relocated to New Orleans from Los Angeles in the middle of her graduate program. She was in the habit of taking bus trips to New Orleans in the summers, during which she’d strike up conversations with her fellow passengers. “I was asking people the same questions I was asking myself — what I wanted in life and what I thought was going to get in the way of it, and how I was going to overcome it,” she remembered. Bradley eventually brought along a recorder.

A scene from “Below Dreams” (2014).
A scene from “Below Dreams” (2014).

Convinced that the stories of the people she met on her bus trips needed to be told, she moved to New Orleans and worked a series of odd jobs, couch-surfing while doing research and writing a screenplay. A Craigslist ad helped her cast the film with local, mostly nonprofessional actors. The reverence of “Dreams” for its subjects radiates off the screen, in scenes that situate the viewer in the midst of Bradley’s characters, like intimates rather than voyeurs. In one scene set in a jazz club, the camera restlessly wanders as if unsure what to capture. The trumpeter who has been turned blue-black in the club’s dark? Or the woman jittering to the music? Or Elliott whispering to a woman he’s hitchhiking with? Bradley’s lens roams New Orleans’s streets, stumbling upon candid moments of urban life — a mother’s delicately wiping her son’s face as they sit at a bus stop. Bradley cuts away, but not before we see her playfully lick the boy’s cheek, and the two of them dissolve into laughter.

Bradley’s interest in what images of Black life have not made it to film extends to the historical and speculative. In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art announced that it possessed footage from “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” an unfinished 1913 silent film featuring the Black vaudeville star Bert Williams. The movie tells a simple love story — Bert Williams tries to win the affections of Odessa Warren Grey, whom he must woo away from rival suitors — but its importance to film history exceeds its thin plot. It’s the oldest surviving film featuring an all-Black cast. The appearance of “Field Day” got Bradley thinking about how many other lost images of Black life and creativity might exist. She decided to use scenes from “Field Day” as the starting point for her own film about 20th-century Black life and American cinema, “America.”

A scene from “America” (2019).
A scene from “America” (2019).

The film, which will be exhibited as a multichannel video installation at the Museum of Modern Art in partnership with the Studio Museum in Harlem this fall, depicts 12 historically significant events and individuals in American history between 1915 and 1926, augmented by Bradley’s own oblique images. In one vignette, we see a woman walking down a country road when she encounters a white man clad in what looks to be a Klan robe sitting at the base of a tree. She forces it off him and, in a flurry of motion, refashions it into a sheet that floats off into the wind. The sheet, a reference to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 white-supremacist landmark Hollywood picture “Birth of a Nation,” begins to travel, subject to augmentation by the Black people who come across it: Children chase after it with delight; it gets caught on a clothesline, only to float away into the midst of Buffalo Soldiers who trample it before turning it into a flag.

Legacy Russell, associate curator at the Studio Museum, told me that Bradley has thought a lot about “how to present new images into an archive, this idea that the archive is participatory.” “America” ripples with this sense of participatory creation, generating images of Black belonging and achievement that have been relegated to the margins. By the time we land on the film’s final image — a Black man between takes on the set of “Field Day” who stares directly into the camera, as if communicating with us through time — we perceive his image as one of pure possibility. Bradley counteracts our society’s prevailing ideas of Blackness with new, ever-multiplying representations.

“Time” wasn’t Bradley’s idea alone. She and Fox Rich met in New Orleans during production on Bradley’s 2017 documentary short (and New York Times Op-Doc), “Alone,” which tells the story of Aloné Watts, a Louisiana woman struggling with whether she should marry her incarcerated boyfriend. Fox Rich was a well-known prison activist by then, and Bradley sought her help with the project. Bradley had already been considering the possibility of a sister film that would explore the prison system in further depth from a Black feminist point of view. She and Fox Rich had built trust by working together on “Alone,” and that trust played a large part in the two of them deciding to embark on “Time.”

Bradley let the Richardson family’s life determine how she filmed, mostly choosing to shoot their daily rhythms and rituals. There are long shots of Fox Rich’s face as she goes about her day, repeatedly calling the Louisiana courts to determine if they will reconsider Rob’s sentence, or applying makeup as she recounts how the experience of incarceration can render a family estranged from their own emotional lives. Bradley’s footage is contemplative, patient in its desire to know what incarceration has meant for the Richardsons, happy to let that knowledge unfold at its own pace. The result is a lyrical, elliptical film that works through visual echoes, repeated motifs and an astonishing level of intimacy, as in a rapturous and dreamlike sex scene filmed in incredibly close proximity. You come away with the sense that Bradley doesn’t want to deliver a narrative so much as set her audience down in the turbulent, time-distending emotional experience of incarceration.

Fox Rich’s own videos are crucial to conveying that experience. Bradley didn’t discover that they existed until she was finished shooting, and she re-edited the whole film around them, splicing them into her own black-and-white footage. In including the home recordings, though, Bradley transformed them, creating a moving back and forth between the two women. Before we see a scene Bradley shot of Remington entering dental school and receiving his first white coat, we see him as a kindergarten student, vowing to carry whatever his mother might need him to carry. There’s a melancholy in his face that Bradley echoes in her own images. He smiles at the white-coat ceremony, the very image of achievement, but even then we can see a bit of that child’s hurt in his eyes. “Time is when you look at pictures from when your babies are small, and then you look at them and you see that they have mustaches and beards, and the biggest hope you had was that, before they turned into men, they would have a chance to be with their father,” Fox Rich soliloquizes, her voice quivering a bit, and Bradley’s lens echoes Fox Rich’s evident longing in the way it gazes upon Remington’s face.

Credit…Djeneba Aduayom for The New York Times

If, as Fox Rich says in the film, the carceral state wants to impose loneliness — by sundering husband from wife, father from sons, the individual from community — “Time” asserts the power of community as weapon of resistance. We see this in Fox Rich’s recordings, in the poetic cadence of her voice as she addresses her incarcerated husband, in her sons’ defiant exuberance as they leap, dance, swim and smile through the world, secure in their embrace of one another. We see it in the way the film defies many of the clichés of a prison film. There are no scenes shot inside Angola, no images of Rob in a jumpsuit; the only images we see of the prison are shot from on high, giving us a bird’s-eye view and emphasizing how it is occluded from the rest of society.

There are a few shots in “Time” that I keep returning to. Throughout the film, Bradley sprinkles excerpts from one of Fox Rich’s speaking engagements, a reading and speech about her family’s incarceration. The camera looks up at Fox Rich from below in reverent close-up; she’s lit from behind so that she appears to be faintly glowing. But just as Bradley’s lens threatens to seem worshipful of Fox Rich, we get a cut: to a younger Black woman framed against a dark background, flanked by two other women. She appears on the verge of tears but does not cry. In another excerpt from the speech, the camera cuts away to an older Black woman with close-cropped hair, looking on proudly as she records it with her own phone. Bradley lights these women with the same reverence that we thought was reserved for Fox Rich. Her camera lingers over their faces for so long that it feels as if we’re making eye contact with them, and Bradley manages to convey something of these Black women’s shared pride and pain. To watch their faces is to watch an individual problem become a social problem — to watch loneliness dissipate.

Ismail Muhammad is a writer and critic in Oakland, Calif. He is the criticism editor for The Believer, a contributing editor for ZYZZYVA and a contributing writer for The Nation.


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