Garrett Bradley on How She Is Unbeholden to Any Film Genre

The filmmaker aims to make work that offers a space for people to experience 'a sense of safety and a radical homecoming for the past'

BY Terence Trouillot AND Garrett Bradley in Interviews | 26 NOV 20

Terence Trouillot: Your short film Alone (2017) and your recent feature-length documentary, Time (2020), both relay true stories of women in relationships with imprisoned men. More than just archetypal tales of love or investigations into systemic racism and the prison industrial complex, these works focus on female resilience, familial bonds and the protagonists’ humanity.

Garrett Bradley: My projects have all evolved naturally, one from the other. I came to them by way of my own life, by way of the community I am already a part of. I think I’m obsessed with and personally invested in: how communities, individuals and institutional structures appear to not be in dialogue with – and often contradict – one another. I think my work occupies that intersectional grey area between seemingly oppositional arenas.

You’re right when you say that all of my projects have focused, at least partly, on female subjectivity, but that’s not totally by design. I’m first and foremost developing relationships with people that I’ve met along the way – like Fox Rich, the central character of Time, whose husband has been sentenced to 60 years in prison for armed robbery. Ultimately, I’m making films with people, and these larger issues are, to a certain extent, secondary to that. 

Garrett Bradley, America, 2019, film still.Courtesy: the artist and the Museum of Modern Art, New York

TT: I feel like there’s always this balancing act in your work. On the one hand, you’re making documentaries; on the other, you’re also producing experimental, multi-channel film installations like America (2019), currently being shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which references pivotal moments in Black history through filmed and archive footage. In terms of your process, where do those two approaches intersect?

GB: The first paid opportunities given to me were under the umbrella of documentary filmmaking. Regardless of the project, my process doesn’t change. This question of genre is something I leave to the technocrats – I don’t really make those distinctions myself – although I am invested in the truth and the different ways truth is navigated in the context of documentary filmmaking.. The history of documentary filmmaking is rooted in this false idea of objectivity when, in reality, even the very first documentary, Nanook of the North (1922), was a fictional re-creation. There’s also this notion in documentary filmmaking that the truth is vulnerable and aligned with victimhood to a certain extent, which is something that doesn’t interest me. In Time, the way Fox wants to present herself to the world, the way she finds her path through, is her truth – and that’s the truth I lean into. It is actually very similar to the approach I took in America, which was to think about performance through the lens of oppression and resistance. That’s the American story. 

TT: Can you speak to your use of black and white film as a stylistic trope? Apart from the obvious metaphors around race, how does it function as a narrative device?

GB: There’re two answers to that question. One is that even though colour is available to us, black and white is still an option. We used to shoot everything in black and white but, somehow, we ended up with all these expectations around colour and commercial viability. I think the medium is too young for us to have fixed standards like that. 

While I was making America, which took five or six years, I was simultaneously working on various other projects, including Alone, so I had this almost exclusively black and white vision. Since I consider Time and Alone to be sister films, when I started making Time, I was like: ‘It’s definitely going to be in black and white.’ Then, on our last day of shooting, Fox gave me all her personal home archives, which I hadn’t known existed: 100 hours of beautiful colour footage. It gave me a completely different sense of materiality, weight and texture. So, I did experiment with Time being in colour. But, I came back full circle when I started thinking about the soundtrack. Ultimately, colour made the film feel like you were jumping from one steppingstone to the next, rather than standing in the flow of the river. And, when I added the music to the colour version, it just didn’t work; it was overwhelming. 

Garrett Bradley, Time
Garrett Bradley, Time, 2020, film still.Courtesy: the filmmaker and Amazon Studios

TT: Trust plays a big role in your work. In Time, you can see it in your relationship with Fox. But how do you begin that process in a film like America, which drew extensively on early-20th-century archive footage? 

GB: America was a challenge because I was trying to channel the actor Bert Williams, who died in 1922. So, the question became: how do I build trust with this spirit? Is this truly what he would have wanted? I was praying, man; I was burning candles and shit! Williams was the star of Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913): the first feature-length film with an all-Black cast and integrated production. Less than two decades after Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) – the beginning of the Jim Crow laws in the South – Williams managed to get white and Black people to collaborate on producing a work of Black vision. Yes, Williams is wearing Blackface in Lime Kiln Club Field Day, but he found a palpable way to offer nuance in his performance, to ensure we understood him as a character, not a representation of a race. 

When it came to making America, my challenge was to go through Lime Kiln Club Field Day one frame at a time to find the moments that I thought perfectly articulated who was unequivocally in charge. That’s why I open the film with still images of Williams as himself, so we can understand him as a person. These are followed by further stills of him giving direction to a white producer: gestures of power that I felt were less discernible at 17 frames per second. When you speak of trust in terms of America, I think, really, it was about evoking what I saw as a communal nostalgia for Williams's vision of the future, a knowing of progress in the making. Working from that place of intention – the thing that guides my process – is not only about trust in the immediate sense but, I hope, something that offers a sense of safety and a radical homecoming for the past.  

'Projects: Garrett Bradley' runs at the the Museum of Modern Art, New York until 21 March, 2021.

Main image: Garrett Bradley, America, 2019, film still.Courtesy: the filmmaker and the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

Garrett Bradley works across narrative, documentary, and experimental modes of filmmaking to address themes such as race, class, familial relationships, social justice, southern culture, and the history of film in the United States. In January of 2020, Bradley became the first Black American woman to receive Best Director at the 2020 Sundance Film festival for her first feature length documentary Time (2020)