My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To make the punishment fit the crime
The punishment fit the crime.
- The Mikado, 1885
One-hundred-thirty-six years since an operatic buffoon first pranced the stage bemoaning the consequences society inflicts upon its evil-doers, consider the Academy Award nominated documentary, Time. A film that assures us, no progress has been made.
I watched Time with prejudice: assuming I already know the harm our racially-skewed and excessive incarceration system lays upon fellow citizens. Not first-hand mind you: people like me rarely go to prison. Rather from reading, as if empathy-in-print equaled experience.
I can’t say that I particular liked Time, nor even that it added much to my indirect experience of incarceration. But the film stays with me. Its unanswered questions swirl in my head. What lingers is what the film leaves out.
Start with the title. “Time” is a vague. It could be about Stephen Hawking as soon as Sibil Fox Richardson and her quest to get her husband Rob released from Louisiana’s Angola Prison. The obviously clear title is “Doing Time.” Which everyone in this film does: Sibil; her husband; their four sons; for close to twenty years.
Then there’s the backstory. Selective at best. The film is rich in video clips Sibil made for her husband over the years, from when he first enters Angola while she’s pregnant with twins. We learn that they were high school sweethearts, that they opened a clothing store in Shreveport, that they struggled financially, that they committed armed robbery, and that they got caught. Rob is sentenced to sixty years without parole. Sibil — the getaway driver — also does time. What we don’t learn are any details about her time in prison, or who reared the boys, or how the family arrived at the current state. Present tense cameras record four admirable young men, one a dental school graduate, another college bound, living with their professional activist mom in what appears to be middle-class comfort. We get no reference of the struggle that led from there to here.
Intuition suggests the key is Sibil’s mother, a stern Black woman whose minor role downplays outsize influence. Watching this woman, during her too…