Film & TV

The 100 Percent Pure Cliché of Prison-Reform Activism

Time (Amazon Studios)
The documentary Time reaches new heights of arty condescension.

By its title alone you wouldn’t know that the internationally praised documentary Time deals with the so-called prison-industrial complex. But the deception goes deeper than that. Director Garrett Bradley looks at the subject by way of Louisiana social activist Sibil Fox Richardson, who calls herself Fox Rich. In 1997, Richardson and her husband were arrested for bank robbery; she took a plea bargain, went to prison, and got out early. Upon release, she reinvented herself, and spent 20 years trying to free her husband, Robert Richardson, who was serving a 60-year sentence.

Part of Fox Richardson’s new identity includes lending family videos to Bradley that put her life in a sentimental context. The sociological aspect of her story gets reimagined, which is to say the “prison-industrial complex” subject is glorified as an art thing: Bradley adds new video material shot by three photographers to the amateur stuff, then edits past and present together, dissolving chronology. The pretty, pugnacious, mercurial Fox Richardson is seen as the ultimate black Millennial stereotype through which black victimization goes on forever.

Bradley denies us the details of or insights into Fox Richardson’s past (not least of which are the circumstances of her giving birth to six boys during the 20-year fight for her husband’s release). Instead, she spins together video koans that blur actuality with cornball imagery of black folksiness, Southern female charm, and resilient youth. It’s a lawyer’s trick: confusing the issues in order to get a jury to exonerate your client. In the film, Fox Richardson idealizes the business partnership she and her husband formed as young entrepreneurs who ran a hip-hop clothing store, which then fell on hard times. Her explanation of the bank-robbery plan? “Desperate people do desperate things. It’s as simple as that.” In one clip, her mother attests, “They did do it.” From there Bradley randomly shows Fox Richardson speaking at prison-reform events where she pontificates, “My story is the story of over two million people in the United States falling prey to incarceration.” Bradley simply ignores the lure of crime, the influence of a criminal culture on society, and her subject’s apparent lack of a sense of personal responsibility.

Time’s kinetic puzzle-pieces are a new form of liberal condescension. It converts color video to black-and-white for nostalgia and exoticism — a grainy Robert Flaherty effect. Bradley offends the memory of Flaherty’s The Louisiana Story (1950), one of the truly great documentary features that innovated the highest cinema standards to validate an anthropologist’s entranced view of a little-known section of the modern world. Time perverts Flaherty’s noble effort into political self-righteousness.

Bradley spins imagery past the point of being informative into a concoction of racial-justice clichés. An early clip of Fox Richardson rehearsing a TV commercial for the car dealership she owns, protecting her image as though she were the director, might be Bradley’s only insight into her subject as a drama queen. (Or is Bradley the Svengali to Sibil’s Trilby?)

While Flaherty’s greatness elevated empathy to a higher vision, Bradley made Time as part of the New York Times’ Op-Docs series (one of the executive producers is the activist-filmmaker Davis Guggenheim). From that we can deduce that this is another 1619 Project scheme. Fox Richardson falls into the 1619 Project’s trap of self-pity and self-justification — predilections that have overtaken liberal elites, including some aggrieved social-climbing blacks. She views incarceration as the white man’s “personal vendetta.” She declares: “It’s almost like slavery time. It’s like the white man keeps you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out.”

Both Fox Richardson and her mother display a sangfroid bordering on con-artistry: Their looking to racism as an excuse for everything keeps people stuck in the welfare-system mentality as a way of life. Bradley and Fox Richardson reinforce each other’s assumptions. The latter’s lecture tour is a brazen act of condescension, which Bradley films patronizingly. When a Tulane University audience applauds her, Fox Richardson goes diva: “You ain’t never lied! Gimme mine! Because one of the things that I committed to was that I would never let them get me like that again, would never give up my freedom, would never be subjugated to such inhumane treatment.” She repeats “never” 16 times until the countrified anger sounds rude — it’s quite a performance.

Fox Richardson’s many guises, from raucous homegirl to polite parole petitioner to saleslady with straightened hair and pearl necklace, suggests a bodacious Vivica Fox character. Bradley restores the ex-con’s lost opportunity for stardom by way of activism that takes on the same condescension as her Oprah and Michelle prototypes; the director and her grandstanding subject are equally politically dishonest.

The misrepresentation of black moral consciousness is one of the grave offenses in recent media. When Fox Richardson says that “our prison system is nothing more than slavery and I see myself as an abolitionist,” this specious sense of even her own history is pathetic. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s Hurricane Katrina survivor doc I’m Carolyn Parker (2011) was suffused with love, not politics.

Time never relates Fox Richardson’s case to the uninterested Obama administration (the period of her prison-reform activism) or President Trump’s First Step Act for prisoner rehabilitation. The film is predicated on deliberate, phony artiness. Fox Richardson intones: “While incarcerated my prayer was that upon my release from prison God would allow me to use my voice for the voiceless.” Nothing like liberal condescension to turn what might have been a sincere vow into 100 percent pure cliché.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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