Ty Flowers is a documentary filmmaker, video artist and musician now based in New York City, but he grew up in Fort Lauderdale and attended the University of Florida. His portfolio includes work for the History Channel, Science, NatGeo, Discovery, A&E and the Travel Channel.
He also directed the documentary, Time Simply Passes, the harrowing true story of James Richardson and his wrongful conviction for poisoning his seven children in 1967. Richardson, an itinerant citrus worker in Arcadia, Florida — a notorious Klan "sundown" town where no black man should be out after dark — spent 21 years in prison. After years of effort, he was finally exonerated in 1987 and was promised compensation from the state of Florida, $50,000 for each year of incarceration.
CL recently had an opportunity to talk with Ty Flowers.
What are your Florida connections?
My family was part of that wave of migration from Michigan to Florida after a/c became available. My dad got a job at the Miami Herald, so we moved to Florida from Detroit. I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, but now live in Brooklyn as I couldn't find a job in Florida, but I’m still a Floridian, still vote in Florida, still have a Gainesville phone number. My father still lives in Seminole Heights in Tampa. He and I produced the film. He conducted the first interviews while I sat on the sideline, but as his Parkinson’s progressed, he shifted to sideline and I began to take over, so our roles reversed.
How did you access these non-digital, archival documents and footage?
My father had boxes and boxes of crumbling newspaper clippings, interview transcripts from Tropic Magazine and Seminole Tribune research, all from before James got out of prison in 1988, and everything from 1988 to now, anything that mentioned the case at all. He never threw away anything, so when I came to the story, it was all just rotting away in his garage, all those VHS tapes, and more, in the boxes.
Why the title Time Simply Passes?
I didn’t want to fall into the predictable trap of most documentaries that use titles to make it seem like everything was OK by end of movie. Irony informs a lot of documentary titles, so a potential title here was Free at Last. But that’s trite and stupid. James Richardson may be out of prison, but he is not free. The title is just about things moving on. He’s out, can walk around, go to grocery, but ultimately he’s still stuck in a lifelong struggle. And he’s not freed from the reality that all his children are poisoned, but the state never bothered to find the real killer.
Has he seen the film?
I mailed him a DVD that he and his wife watched at his Wichita, Kansas church with his family and friends crowded around a small TV screen. He called me afterwards and was very moved. He wants to relocate to West Palm Beach if he’s able to get sufficient funds. The state is parceling it out in small increments, $50,000 a year, but he still wants the state to give him a lump sum so he can pursue retirement in Florida. The legislature came up with this $50K as they calculated that’s what an average person might make yearly on a job. This just assuages their guilt by replacing the salary he would have earned for the 21 years.
Why was he wrongfully imprisoned, and why were these public officials not punished?
Some saw it as “Southern racism” with a black man and an all-white jury, but race is a symptom, not the cause. Also he was poor. As he had spoken to an insurance agent beforehand, some said he killed his children for the financial benefit. We must solve the systemic problems that allow the perpetual incarceration of people of color, poor people, people who just don’t fit the look of what the system considers acceptable. The DeSoto County prosecutor and district attorney had to find the culprit for this grisly murder to maintain the aura of being public servants who could tell the citizens, "Don’t worry, you are safe now, we found the guy who did it.” The law protects these officials with immunity from prosecution..
Is this film a call for political activism?
People should support organization that are lobbying for prison reform, groups like Exoneration Reform, ACLU, others. We must hold locally-elected political figures and other public servants responsible. If you can’t figure out who the people are running for Judge, Sheriff, State Attorney, then don’t vote for them. The biggest thing in Florida right now is trying to pass a constitutional amendment to restore felon voting rights.
What did you learn in making this documentary?
I did learn one stupid thing, and that's I didn’t know about film marketing. I had assumed that you make a good film and immediately people would flock to see it. That was very naive. It’s a lot more about celebrity, money and budget. Marketing a film just on its own merits is a lot harder. Making a film is like throwing stuff into the abyss, wondering who’s out there to watch and respond.
Ben Wiley taught literature and film at St. Petersburg College. At USF/Tampa, he was statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are film, books, and kayaking Florida rivers. He also writes the BookStories feature in Creative Loafing Tampa. Contact him here.