Garrett Bradley’s collaborative and research-based approach to filmmaking is often inspired by the real-life stories of people in New York City, where she grew up, Los Angeles, where she went to school, and most recently in her home base of New Orleans. For Bradley, research takes multiple forms, from exploring the archive in America (2019), to casting via Craigslist want-ads in Below Dreams (2014), to engaging with the communities and individuals she seeks to represent in Time (2020). “My projects have all evolved naturally, one from the other,” Bradley has said. “I came to them by way of my own life, by way of the community I am already a part of.”
Bradley’s films blur the boundaries between narrative and documentary cinema. She begins each project with a series of questions and works within a collaborative framework, bringing people into a dialogue as a means of creating a more nuanced understanding of the social, economic, and racial politics of everyday life. “As a person...who’s making work that is often inspired by personal and peripheral experiences, by observing the things that are around me, I am always thinking, Where can I help?,” Bradley explained
Influenced by the films of Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, and Billy Woodberry of the L.A. Rebellion, she creates parallels to the ways these filmmakers repurposed techniques from international cinema to represent the realities of Black life in the 1960s. William Greaves’s film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968)—which expands the tradition of cinéma vérité in a nonlinear form that troubles the boundaries between fiction and reality—impacted Bradley as well, inspiring her interest in employing abstraction to reclaim how Black stories are told. Bradley often uses repetitive images and sounds to break with what she calls the “standard Western historical value of linearity as a true and pure form mimicking reality.”
Shot in New Orleans in close collaboration with its protagonists, Time traces one family’s navigation of, and resistance to, the American carceral system, exploring the systemic separation of Black families throughout history as part of the aftermath of slavery in America. At the film’s core is Sibil Fox Richardson (Fox Rich), whose husband Rob received a 60-year prison sentence in 1997. Time follows Fox’s tireless fight for Rob’s release before he was granted clemency in 2018, after serving 21 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The film creates an intimate and urgent portrait of the effects of mass incarceration in America and challenges the invisibility of incarcerated Americans. For this work, Bradley became the first Black woman to win Best Director at Sundance, in January 2020.
Projects: Garrett Bradley (2020) features a multichannel video installation of the film America (2019), screened on four intersecting, transparent white flags affixed to copper poles. The 23-minute film is organized around 12 short black-and-white vignettes shot by Bradley on 35mm film and later transferred to video; it’s set to a score by artist Trevor Mathison and composer Udit Duseja of the pioneering Black Audio Film Collective (1982–98). Bradley intersperses the vignettes with footage from the unreleased Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1914)—originally restored by MoMA and now part of the Museum’s collection—believed to be the oldest surviving feature-length film with an all-Black cast. Seeing Bert Williams’s monumental film as a catalyst for the project, Bradley’s abstraction of image and sound creates a reimagined visual chronology of Black American history that, as she says, “can serve as an archive of the past and a document of the present.”
Legacy Russell, Associate Curator, Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem; Yelena Keller, Curatorial Assistant, Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem; and Angelique Rosales Salgado, Studio Museum and MoMA Curatorial Fellow, 2021