by Michael Young | April 19, 2021
6 min read
"Time" poster
Source: Amazon Studios

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of five reviews of this year’s Academy Award nominees for best feature-length documentary, all of which are available for streaming. The reviews, specially commissioned by the Sun from former New Mexico-based movie reviewer Michael Young, will all be published before the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony on April 25.

There is always at least one movie in the list of Oscar nominees that generates a lot of controversy. This year, it appears, there are at least two: “Mulan” and “Time,” the subject of this review.

Initially a co-production of the New York Times that was subsequently acquired by Amazon Studios, “Time” has become embroiled in another left/right battle, this time over the explanation for the disproportionate numbers of Black and other minorities in the prison population of this country. The right seems to argue that there are so many minorities in jail because they, proportionately, commit more violent crimes. The left argues that structural, or institutional, racism disproportionately levies severe punishment on minorities, especially Blacks.

I’m not going to pretend I don’t have a left-leaning sympathies on this question, having spent many years working with the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, where I saw firsthand the bias of the criminal justice system against the less privileged in our society. Conservatives, right off the top, don’t seem to have a good explanation for why the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of its population than any other industrialized country. If America is such an “exceptional” place, why are so many of its citizens criminals? And why do people of color, especially in “red” states, suffer a higher conviction rate and receive longer prison sentences than white people who commit the same crimes?

“Time” examines these questions by focusing on the experiences of one Black family, the Richardsons (Rich, for short), that falls into the criminal justice sinkhole. Two young Black people in New Orleans get married, seem happy, manage a family of six boys and, to a certain extent, prosper. They open a business selling hip-hop clothing. When the business falters, the Riches hatch a misguided plan. As the wife, mom and leading figure in the documentary, Sibil Rich, a.k.a. Fox Rich, says: “Desperate people do desperate things. It’s as simple as that.”

Robert, the husband and father, and a friend decide to rob a credit union bank and Sibil agrees to drive the getaway car. Guns are involved and the threesome are caught and prosecuted.  An attorney, more interested in fees than justice, is assigned to represent Sibil, who pleads guilty and ends up with a 42-month sentence. After time served, she comes home and resumes raising her boys.

Her husband, however, apparently given different advice, ends up getting sentenced to a term of 60 years in Angola (the Louisiana State Penitentiary) without any possibility for parole or probation. Sibil becomes a passionate advocate for criminal justice reform, especially in the areas of sentencing and incarceration. In her view, “our prison system is nothing more than slavery.  And I see myself as an abolitionist.”

Some of the facts of the case are a little discomfiting. I read several scathing reviews on IMDb that implied that the robbery was much more serious than depicted, with shots being fired. I could not find confirmation of that allegation. I also read that the Richardsons made the mistake during the trial of visiting jurors’ homes to plead for mercy. Although they may not have realized it, their actions could be interpreted as jury tampering and almost caused a mistrial. The documentary does not deal with either of these charges. These unresolved aspects of the Richardsons’ story caused some reviewers to feel less sympathy for the family.

The resilient Fox Rich, whose fierce determination to win her husband’s release is the heart of the documentary. Source: Amazon Studios

But, ultimately, I’m not sure it makes a huge difference. It still remains true that a white first offender would likely have received a minimum sentence for armed robbery, which can range from three to 20 years, not a 60-year sentence without the possibility of parole or probation. The central theme of the movie—that the U.S. penal system is racist in its application of criminal sentences—cannot be persuasively challenged.

The other important message is that a life sentences affects not only the incarcerated person, but innocent family members as well. Fortunately, in this case, Fox Rich does not crumble under the responsibility of being a sole parent and breadwinner. She manages to hold her family together while also fighting to gain her husband’s release. The heart of the documentary is, really, Fox’s amazing resilience. She not only campaigns relentlessly for 20 years, trying to bring about a new, reduced sentence for her husband. She also becomes a fierce advocate for prison system and sentencing reform. The movie paints a moving portrait of a sympathetic woman and her important cause.

“Time” was directed by Garrett Bradley, a Black documentary filmmaker best known for her New York Times Op-Docs short film, “Alone,” which won the Short Form Jury Award at Sundance in 2017. Bradley’s work on “Alone” introduced her to Fox Rich. After Rich gave Bradley more than 100 hours of home movie footage, shot over 20 years of family life, Bradley conceived the idea of making a feature-length film focusing on the Richardsons.

Much of the home movie footage, which allowed Bradley to take the “really long view” that I’ve argued in earlier reviews is a sign of a good documentary, was shot in color, but was then converted to black and white. This cinematographic choice gives the film a crisp coolness, which works well as a contrast to the Richardsons’ passion and warmth. For the most part, Bradley’s interlacing of the home movie footage with her contemporaneous filming is skillfully done, although there are moments when the time frame is not immediately clear. The movie bounces back and forth in the lives of the Richardson children as they grow from small boys into young men. Gratifyingly, most of them graduate from college and one becomes a doctor.

Rob Rich isn’t entirely absent. Bradley incorporates repeated shots of a life-size photograph of the father attached to cardboard cutout figure in the family’s home. The patriarch may not be there in person, but Sibil made sure his presence is always noted. This is an example of how the Richardsons maintained their cohesion and identity.

The title of this documentary has multiple meanings, and figuring them out is one of the pleasures of watching this movie. Perhaps the most significant reference occurs near the end when many of the opening home movie frames are played in reverse—symbolizing an attempt to recapture what has been lost. The final scenes are touching, but I’m not going to spoil them for the viewer.

In the end, this is a good but imperfect movie. It attempts a sympathetic portrait of a distressed family that, relying on inner strength, manages to do fairly well. The movie mostly succeeds in conveying the Richardsons’ faith and perseverance. But nagging concerns about the honesty of the film’s portrayal of the robbery linger, perhaps unjustly. It is fair to say that, when compared to some of the other contenders in the 2020 Best Feature-Length Documentary category, “Time” doesn’t have staying power—its impact starts to fade after a day or two. Not this year’s best. 3.5 stars

“Time” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.


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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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