Garrett Bradley warped the clock. In her masterwork Time (2020), the present is the past is the future—which is to say, the lie of linearity gets emptied. Virginia Woolf comes up, when I think of artists who have comparably seized on the “extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind”—to quote the novelist, peering as she did over the ledge of modernity come to her imperial country. For Bradley—reporting from her own nation, the carceral nation of the United States—focusing on and possibly reproducing, in the cinema, the fractured flow of “time in the mind” from the vantage of Black women is a decolonizing move. And so Time, Bradley’s second feature-length film and first feature-length documentary, is a womanist biography of an American family, led by the singular being we call Fox Rich, made and unmade by the prison experience, spanning, if you’ll allow the insufficient temporal term, nearly two decades. The country pretends to turn on the axis of innocence and guilt. The shifting lens of subjectivity is the real source of order.
Bradley’s body of work—which encompasses fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, episodic television, and gallery installation—is unbound by genre. How Time assumed its final, layered form is a testament to its director’s liberated process. The thirty-five-year-old artist is a personal filmmaker; many of her works are spawned from the intimate relationships of her life and within her extended community in New Orleans and its environs. Going down south, her reverse migration, gave the native New Yorker a new view of the invention of Blackness in the country. In 2017, Bradley made what she calls the sister film to Time, the twelve-minute short Alone, a portrait of her friend Aloné Watts, in collaboration with the Op-Docs desk at the New York Times. The contours of the cultural crisis of mass incarceration are there in the works. But Bradley is constitutionally an image-maker, not a documentarian per se. The mandates of the nonfiction filmmaking mode, its predilection for the fantasy of critical distance, cannot leak into Bradley’s portrait of Aloné, because Bradley trusts Aloné to be the authority on her own experience.
It is Aloné, in voice-over, who gives us the situation: Desmond Watson, her incarcerated lover, would like to marry. “What would it look like to marry Desmond in prison?” Aloné thinks in bed, her hair preserved in a bonnet. The subjunctive—what would it look like—is the grammatical mood in Bradley’s examinations of unfulfilled desire, her studies of women forced by institutions and by society to find succor in the perpetual promise of a hypothetical better life. Trying on a bridal gown she may or may not get to wear, Aloné says, “I am beautiful in this dress.” So plunged are we into the interiority of Aloné that when the aperture of the film widens, five minutes in, the moment, one of intergenerational confrontation, shocks. The confrontation is conveyed through crashing, heaving sound. Bradley’s camera sits yards away from the door of the home inside which Aloné informs her family of her intentions to marry, as if the camera, too, is being rebuked. And it is. Out of a desire to steer their child away from the carceral destiny, the film’s mother figures—Bradley is drawn to ruptures and continuities in the Black matriarchal line—scream at and admonish and lacerate Aloné for deigning to waste her one and precious life. On what? On love? What would it look like? That closed door, that emblem of no exit from the pull of family and the burden of history and the intoxicant of respectability, is the portal to understanding why this is a scene that cannot be overtly “seen”—the withholding embedded in the view of the film paradoxically dramatizes the custom of kitchen secrecy, of not running your mouth and letting your business out. Of having the temerity to control the record. And records—who in society is given license to create them—occupy Bradley. Aloné too. Mired in doubt, the young woman encounters a maternal figure, Rich, whom Bradley, with mythos on the mind, films at a canted angle. Rich identifies the problem. The system, she speechifies, “is designed, just like slavery, to tear you apart. And instead of using the whip, they use Mother Time.” The tilt, and the intercutting of what looks like a religious crowd absorbing the good word, turns Rich and her preaching into the prophet figure and prophecies augured by her government name, Sibil.
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