Over the course of its 82 brisk minutes, Garrett Bradley’s essential documentary Time boldly and constantly underlines the simple profundity of its title. The film is about time stolen, time spent, time wasted, and time reclaimed. By its end, any viewer who is truly paying attention will be at least enraged, and hopefully also moved to more intentional action.

Put broadly, Time is about mass incarceration, a subject whose racist, unchecked violence is thankfully being interrogated more regularly in current art and politics than ever before. But this is not merely a straightforward procedural presentation of this racist system’s continuing history. Bradley’s film focuses on one specific family’s struggle and tells an overwhelmingly epic story in an intimately personal way.

Sibil Fox Rich calling for an update on her husband case

Utilizing ample home video footage, Bradley constructs a time-jumping portrait of Sibil “Fox” Rich, a woman who has spent years struggling to secure the release of her husband Robert Richardson and who has chronicled her own journey every step of the way. Ms. Rich’s tireless commitment, both to her fight and to recording its dizzying twists, shows not only the lasting power of a love that defies the barriers thrown in its way, but also the creative power of the oppressed refusing to allow their story to be told on anyone else’s terms but their own.

For most of Time’s running time, Mr. Richardson sits in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, convicted of armed robbery, but the film is less concerned with exactly how he ended up in prison and more interested in spotlighting the mundane injustices that keep him there. Ms. Rich drove Mr. Richardson’s getaway car and served her own sentence, but she’s now free and dividing her days between delivering rousing takedowns of the criminal legal system, advocating tirelessly for Mr. Richardson’s release (including a dizzying number of cumulative hours spent on hold with administrative offices), and raising the couple’s growing sons.

Photograph of the Rich family

Jumping agilely between Ms. Rich’s grainy footage from the past and more recent, professionally shot scenes, Bradley creates a tone poem packed with fiery, organic spirituality. Ms. Rich serves as a sort of homegrown faith leader as she demonstrates her devotion to both finding freedom for her own family and dismantling the carceral systems that destroy so many other families. She preaches her own gospel of tearing down the capitalistic, white supremacist structures that keep the business of mass incarceration booming. Even when she is not preaching, the routine rituals of her regular pleading phone calls offer their own liturgical lilt to the film’s proceedings. Through Bradley’s sensitive and often surprising scene-splicing, Ms. Rich’s steadfast and daily practices merge into a loud rallying cry, one that feels more authentically centered than many sermons preached from a pulpit.

Ms. Rich’s and Mr. Richardson’s story would still be just as affecting if told in a more straightforward style or even if shaped by a lesser filmmaker. Theirs is an experience that, once witnessed, grips the heart and refuses to let go. But by marrying deep empathy with staggering craft, Bradley takes their story’s truth and expands it, treating it with the respect it requires while also artfully elevating its themes. By doing so, heco-creates a timeless and raw depiction of the constant battle between the power of empire and the power of love, the former a death-dealing false idol and the latter a life-giving holy gift.

The film doesn’t lose itself in its own poetry; its point of view is consistently clear and prophetic. Both well-made and well-stocked with relevant questions about societal assumptions and insidious status quos, Time’s urgent call to viewers is for them to not waste their time just admiring its artistry and instead go out into the world and change the unjust systems it exposes.