Tag Archives: Louisiana

VIFF 2020 Review: Time

Time is a documentary of how Sibil Fox Richardson (left) fights for the freedom of her husband Robert (right).

Normally I don’t like to see documentaries. I’ve seen enough one-sided documentaries in the previous decade to turn me off them. However I took an interest in Time. Injustice to African-Americans has been a heated topic this year and I felt Time was worth seeing.

The documentary consists mostly of filmed footage from court appearances, church appearances and camera phone videos of various moments and shown in black and white. The film begins with Sibil Fox Richardson trying to get a result back from the legal system for the freedom of her husband Robert. Robert was sentenced to prison for 60 years for an armed robbery he committed. It was his first offence. It’s a sentence many, including Sybil, feel is unjust and she’s working to get him freed.

The story is a long process as Sibil is trying to get a result or even a simple answer from the Louisiana Justice Department. It’s been a long wait over years. Each time she’s been calling, she gets a message that they don’t have a result or even an answer for her. Even when they give Sibil a due date when they’ll have it ready, it’s the same response: no answer.

You may ask how did this all start? It was in the 1990’s when Robert and Sibil had plans to start a business of their own. They planned on starting a sportswear store of their own in Lafayette. It seemed destined for promise as sportswear was all the rage in the 1990’s and Lafayette is a big football town. However business didn’t go as well as they hoped. The two decided to rob a bank in 1997; Robert did the robbery and Sibil drove the getaway car. They were eventually caught and convicted. Robert’s sentence was 60 years in prison and Sibil’s was 2 1/2 years.

Since Sibil’s release, she’s been able to get her life together. She’s been able to maintain a successful career, become a responsible member of the community, and has had six children — all boys including two twins — through Robert. She’s also done a very good job of raising her sons. Her oldest son graduated from a medical college. Her twins are also very good academically. One son is on the school debating team and plans to pursue a career in justice.

One thing is still missing. Robert is not free from prison. His prison sentence was excessive. Sibil has stayed loyally married to Robert during the time and it has been her goal to get him out of prison. It’s a goal in which she’s been struggling with for years involving lawyers, court appearances, legal department negotiations, and even media interviews. She even has a life-sized picture of Robert in his prison uniform glued to a cardboard cutout in the kitchen. It’s a reminder to her and her sons what she’s fighting for.

The battle is undoubtedly a personal one. She loves Robert unconditionally, but it’s hard seeing him imprisoned. It’s hard for her to see it both as a wife and as a mother. She knows how hard it is for her sons to see their father imprisoned. It’s hard when the Justice Department promises something by a certain date, and even has a time limit by law, but they don’t have the answers and it is delayed. She’s polite about it over the phone to whoever she calls about it, but her angry feelings become obvious once she hangs up. It’s also a personal burden for her with her being the getaway driver of the robbery. She served her time, raised her family well, received forgiveness from others, but something’s missing. She may have been forgiven by others, but she never asked her own mother for forgiveness. She’s even seen at her local church during a service asking for forgiveness from her community.

SPOILER WARNING: Do not read this paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending. However at long last, Robert is free. We see the video of the day Robert is released and driven home by Sibil. The trip ends with a kiss: the first kiss during Robert’s freedom! The family celebrates with a backyard barbecue. The final act of the celebration is the family can take the cardboard picture of Robert and burn it on the barbecue.

This is a case of the right documentary at the right time. Systemic racism has been a very heated topic of 2020. George Floyd isn’t the first African-American to be killed at the hands of police. Police brutality has caused the deaths of many African Americans for decades. However when the news and video hit the public eye, the outrage grew. It was like the outrage over a common injustice had been hidden for so long and just exploded at that moment. Like a bubble bursting. It’s especially frustrating when they live in a country with a president who denies the wrongdoing and wants to label protesters ‘thugs’ and ‘extremists’ all for the sake of winning the upcoming Presidential Election. And talk from right-wing media pundits who remind the public of crime statistics involving African Americans aren’t helping to put out the fire either. The outrage was not restricted to the United States. Protests were worldwide as people were united in solidarity not only of what happened in the US but of racism in their own countries.

This documentary is about another failure of the system towards African-Americans: the justice system. In the 1980’s, a lot of Tough On Crime acts were enforced into law. This has especially hurt African Americans as prison populations escalated and African Americans make up more of the percentage of prisoners that white prisoners. Much of the problem is predominantly black neighborhoods being overpoliced and black convicts receiving harsher prison sentences. While crime by whites have gone either overlooked or underpunished.

The documentary gives a very good example of this injustice. It puts a human face on what it’s like to be the wife of a husband of a harsh prison sentence. Times like these make you wonder what they’d give a white man who committed the same crime. Sibil comes across as a strong woman who’s determined to beat the odds on the outside, but her inner frailty soon becomes obvious. She ends a phone call with the justice board politely despite the disappointing news, but speaks her anger about how she feels about it. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind about the racism she senses once the call ends. She’s proud of how her sons have grown up but she is still upset that they’ve all only own their father behind bars. She talks of how difficult, but necessary, it is to keep her family intact. She even wrestles with the personal demon of being part of the crime. She served her full sentence long ago and appears to have more than made up for it, but personal things like repentance to those she hasn’t repented to still bother her. The use of personal camera work is best at showing the human side of the matter because it gets the honesty of what’s happening.

The film focuses on the injustice, but it also focuses on rays of hope. Getting Robert freed from prison isn’t the only ray of hope in the film. The first ray of hope is seen in Sibil’s own life and parenting. Sibil is an oddsbeater. She refuses to make a repeat offender of herself. She’s become a responsible person in her community and church. She acknowledges the past wrongs she and her husband did and wants to move forward. As for parenting, statistics state children of parents in prison most likely grow up to become criminals themselves. That’s not the case for her sons. Their oldest graduates from a medical college. Both of her twins do well in high school and one is active on the school debating team. He plans on pursuing a career in justice. I’m sure seeing the unfairness his father endured is probably what fuels his ambition. The husband’s freedom is also a symbol of why it’s important never to quit on doing the right thing. There are a lot of injustices to overcome, but it’s worth it no matter how hard it gets.

The biggest praise should go to director Garrett Bradley. This film won the Best Director award in the US Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival (the first African American director to win this award), the Charles Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and the Filmmaker Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

Bradley does an excellent job in showing the images that tell the story. With straight film footage that doesn’t have a voiceover and allows the main subject do most of the talking, we get a no-nonsense undistorted story and a proper unmanipulated point of view. Filming takes places from multiple angles and we get the truth exposed. It presents the solution, but also with the huge problems it overcomes. Showing the images in black and white is appropriate because while justice shouldn’t be black and white, the system has turned it into a black and white issue. Even titling the film Time adds to the film’s quality. It’s about time served, time to rebuild your life, time to make a family happen, time to raise your children, more-that-necessary time behind bars and the seemingly-endless time to make justice for your husband happen. Above all, the time to tell the whole story and time to expose the problems in achieving the solution.

Time is more than just an excellent non-nonsense documentary that does an honest portrayal of its theme. It’s the exact documentary we need at a time like this. Also it’s a reminder that ‘Liberty and Justice for all,’ should mean all! No exceptions!

Oscars 2012 Best Picture Review: Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Beasts

” I see that I’m a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right. When I die, the scientists of the future, they’re gonna find it all. They gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she live with her daddy in The Bathtub.”

Funny how back during the summer of 2012 there were two hit movies from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival that were released: Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom. If you asked me which one would be most likely to be a Best Picture nominee for this year’s Oscars, I wouldn’t guessed Moonrise Kingdom would have the best chances. How wrong I was. I finally had my chance to see Beasts so I can see why it’s a Best Picture nominee and I now know why.

This film starts with Hushpuppy: a young girl living in an island community on the Louisiana bayou called ‘The Bathtub’. The Bathtub is a small community cut off from the rest of society by the water surrounding the island but it’s close-knit and shares in its bonds and celebrations. Hushpuppy and her father don’t have much but they’re optimistic for each other and share a close bond. The bond is threatened as Wink is missing and Hushpuppy has to fend for herself. Wink returns in a hospital gown and argues with Hushpuppy. Things get worse when Hushpuppy sets her house on fire. That leads to fight that starts with Wink slapping Hushpuppy and her responding with a punch to Wink’s heart that leaves him collapsing of cardiac arrest.

Meanwhile the ice caps are melting due to climate change and the melting ice unleashes the Aurochs: prehistoric ice-age creatures Hushpuppy learns of in school. A storm brews, threatening the Bathtub community. It’s then that Hushpuppy and Wink reunite and he keeps her shelter in his home. He even tries to calm her by shooting bullets in the sky to ‘scare off the storm’. After the storm, the two reunite with other people of the Bathtub community. Their attempt to rebuild the community is halted as saltwater has flooded the community. Even an attempt by Wink to detonate a bomb made out of an alligator carcass doesn’t succeed well enough and the residents are forced by authorities to evacuate the Bathtub to an emergency shelter and Wink to face further medical attention. All are resistant as the evacuees escape back to their homes and Wink is too violently stubborn to face surgery.

Hushpuppy knows her father will die despite whatever help he’s given and she goes searching for her mother whom her father has commonly reminisced over. She thinks she found her in an island restaurant as a waitress. Nevertheless the waitress tells her she can’t take care of her. This soon leads Hushpuppy to soon face the Aurochs and deal with her dying father. This leads to an ending that is both intense and solemn.

The film is a unique story of an environmental catastrophe threatening the life of a Louisiana bayou. A lot of images of people taking refuge may remind a lot of people about Hurricane Katrina from seven years ago. The best thing about this film is that it’s more than just an envirofiction story set in the present but also one styled to look like a folk story from the Southern US along the styles of a Mark Twain folk story. Without a doubt, the protagonist Hushpuppy is the spirit of the story and the characters surrounding her, both humans and other beings, area also as much a part of it. She was a little six year-old with a spirit of toughness. Even though she was five, she had to have a toughness for her age as life on the bayou was no ‘big easy.’ People, especially her father Wink, had to hold their own and faced constant threats. People had to be tough. This was something Hushpuppy took to heart as made evident when she tried to do her own cooking. Despite burning down her house, it showed how this was a thing Hushpuppy had to do at such a young age. That was also evident with the scene of the ‘alligator bomb’. This was something too dangerous but Hushpuppy was determined to aid because she felt it needed to be done.

Despite Hushpuppy being the lead protagonist, Wink was the key supporting role as he would have the best impact on Hushpuppy. The biggest key element of Wink was how key he was in another major theme of the movie: the sense of values most people in town in the South carried that most of us modern city folk either take for granted or overlook as we want to live however we want to. He knew how important in life it was to be tough and he passed on his beliefs to Hushpuppy because he wanted her to have that same toughness. He owned a domain that most people would label as a ‘hunk of junk’ but he always considered it his and he was determined to keep it even during times of disaster. He and the neighbors bonded together in a time of taking shelter and escaped because they all felt a huge bond of community. It was a stubborn sense of these values Wink possessed as he refused to let go of them even if he knew he was dying. These were values that he wanted to pass onto Hushpuppy. He wanted her to be tough including encouraging her not to cry. He wanted her to be responsible and hold her own. He wanted her to have a bond with the community. These were values he wanted to pass onto Hushpuppy as he knew that he would soon die and it would be her turn now. And it was evident as Hushpuppy would carry out her father’s last wish and also stay with her community until the bitter end.

The biggest efforts of the movie have to go to Benh Zeitlin with his many efforts. He directed it, he co-composed the music with Dan Romer, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Lucy Alibar: author of the one-act play Juicy And Delirious of which the film is inspired by. What he delivers is a major accomplishment in filmmaking that paints a picture of an area and of a people as it tells a story. It tells a story of a community fighting to stay alive and together despite huge environmental adversity. Interesting that his Wikipedia bio says he was born to folklorist parents and it becomes evident in this film as the film, as I mentioned earlier, also styles the protagonist of this drama to come across as a folk hero one could recognize from fiction set in the south in the 1800’s. Ben’s only 30 and this is his first feature-length film after directing three shorts but he appears to have a promising future ahead of him despite nothing upcoming listed on his IMDB profile. Time will tell if he either moves on to bigger and better things or if he becomes a one-hit wonder director.

Even though the movie’s accomplishments are mostly Zeitlin’s they are also greatly through the efforts of young Quvenzhane Wallis. She was actually six at the time of filming but she did her job excellently but also delivering a character as tough as nails as much as she was a happy spirit. Also a delight to see a child perform a character that isn’t too cutesy. I’ll admit she will make some people uncomfortable when she describes somebody as a ‘pussy’ but she delivers a character that’s not only tough but with the charm of those folk heroes of the southern US literature I keep talking about. Sure, Benh may have directed her to be such but took Wallis to be the perfect fit and to deliver.

Also as important is Dwight Henry. Being a non-actor is an advantage for him in portraying Wink. He delivers a character who’s gritty and stubborn but loving and gives Hushpuppy a tough bond that he wants to last even after he dies. The supporting actors didn’t have as strong of roles but their performances also added to the movie whether it was their performances or even their presence as non-actors as it made the story feel that much more realistic. Also they gave personalities to people one would normally call ‘rednecks’. People deemed ‘rednecks’ are the subject of jokes and humor form the light-hearted jokes of Jeff Foxworthy to the trashy faux-reality of Honey Boo Boo but this film shows them as people with needs just like everyday people. Kind of the same way Winter’s Bone portrayed people commonly known as ‘hillbillies.’ Interesting how this film was made on a budget of $1.8 million and it wins nominations from the Academy. Buzz and awards wins from both Sundance and Cannes definitely helped it. Funny how size matters where the little guy has an advantage.

Beast Of The Southern Wild is a piece of modern folklore by a director with a folklore upbringing that becomes an accomplishment through is directing and storytelling and Wallis’ portrayal of a pint-size heroine. Those who see it will never forget it.

And there you have it. This is now the thirteenth year in a row I’ve done my pursuit of seeing all the Best Picture winners before the Oscars. Hard to believe it myself. Yes it’s tiring but it becomes worth it both for the sake of my blog and for Oscar night.