For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…
[1 nomination for Best Documentary Feature]
Look, I’ll be honest. I really, really didn’t want to watch this one. It’s the last of the documentaries, and this delay was on purpose. Like so many of the other nominees this year, I just assumed it would be super depressing, and I’m not always in the mood to be completely bummed out. The injustices of America’s criminal justice system just couldn’t get much sadder. But presumably the movie would still be good, just like most of the other tear-jerkers this year.
So imagine my surprise when I wound up not actually liking this movie. Like, at all. Depressing or not, it should have been right up my alley. But it wasn’t. I was trying to pinpoint what, exactly, it was that was rubbing me the wrong way. Some of these things are just personal preferences, but others are not:
- Overall style: Black and white (despite being at least partially shot on home video and/or phone in the past 20 years) with loud piano playing over it. This was just straight personal preference. I found it distracting and, frankly, annoying.
- The film is comprised of two decades worth of footage. Some of it (especially from early years) appears to be just regular home videos that any family would have. Later years were clearly shot by professional filmmakers. But there’s a 3rd kind of footage that just rubbed me the wrong way, especially in the earliest years. In these videos, our subject Sibil Fox Richardson talks straight to the camera. To her own camera. On home video? Why? It felt arrogant, performative, and insincere to me. And that, unfortunately, tinged how I perceived the rest of the film.
- Look, our system is jacked up. Everyone knows it. People get locked up for low-level offenses, judged by biased juries, set up to fail in life, etc. I assumed that our family would be in a similar boat. But then they revealed the crime for which Robert (Richardson’s husband) was serving time: robbing a bank. Umm… robbing a bank is a MAJOR CRIME, and he was 100% absolutely guilty of it. Of course he’s supposed to be serving time for that one. Richardson herself was also involved in the crime, took a plea deal, and was out in just a couple years. That sounds about right to me. The part that is legitimately unfair is the length of Robert’s sentence: a jaw-dropping SIXTY YEARS. That over-punitive sentence is absolutely worth protesting. But that’s not really what we’re complaining about here. Instead, we have tons of footage of Richardson complaining about the idea of them being sentenced at all. She does, at one point, apologize to her community for her bad choices, but she also gives a speech about how they’ll never screw her over again. Lady, you robbed a bank and served two years. Nobody did that to you. We barely hear from Robert himself during the entire film to hear if he regrets his crime, but we do see Richardson giving speeches about how unfair the situation is in general. I’m not suggesting that everyone should just be ok and happy about a family member being in prison, especially for such long sentences, but there’s a difference between being unhappy about it, and acting like it’s come out of nowhere. Maybe our filmmakers could have picked different footage to capture the nuance a bit better. But they didn’t.
What did I like? Well, meeting the family that continued to fight and thrive despite their situation. Richardson herself is an incredible speaker, with an absolutely mesmerizing voice. It is difficult to reconcile this strong intelligent woman with her younger bank-robbing self. And that’s partially the point. She raises a brilliant family and is heavily involved in her church community. Her son enters college two years early and run for student government as a sophomore, dead set on a career where he can reform the system that has kept his father locked up. For two decades, they struggle to maintain some semblance of normalcy and family despite their fathers’ imprisonment. As time passes, nothing changes for Robert in prison. But everything changes for his family on the outside. This is the core of the film’s potential.
But for me, this potential is overshadowed by the above complaints. And it was enough to make this movie just not work for me. And, importantly, it was just not executed anywhere near as effectively and skillfully as its thoroughly impressive competitors in the documentary feature category.