It would be very easy to call RaMell Ross’s new documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening a visual poem — not only is it one of the most visually striking movies of the year, but it also possesses a cadence that is simultaneously free-form and narrative — but to do so would be to recognize only half of the movie. In that way, such descriptions sell Hale County short. Not only is it reminiscent of Thai director (and Ross’s creative advisor on this project) Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cultural and spiritual meditations, but it also recalls Steve James’s Hoop Dreams in the way that it explores the intersections of hope and circumstance, and the cultural mores and societal inequalities that form and inform them.
The film begins with an intertitle that states, “The discovering began after I moved to Alabama in 2009 to teach photography and coach basketball. Photographing in my day-to-day I began filming, using the time to figure out how we’ve come to be seen.” Slowly, sound fades in: rap emanating from a car radio overlaid with woodwinds. This mixing of diegetic and non-diegetic sound right off the bat both hints at how Ross will play with the story he’s telling while invoking time as a tool to get to the heart of his subjects. As the movie progresses, he’ll return to this use of sound, again and again, sometimes with music, but often also with dialogue spoken by the people he’s filmed at a different time, in a different setting.
The progression of the film feels both quick and slow. Cows laze in a pasture on a cool morning as the sun rises and the fog lifts. A baby wails as a woman balances a fly swatter on her knee. The shadows of basketball players disrupt a patch of sunlight on the wall as they go through the motions of practice. Kittens scatter in the headlights of a slow-moving car. Each of these scenes feels like a small synecdoche of Hale County and its people, each one important and descriptive and yet also totally ordinary. This is due to Ross’s expertise with the camera (which is phenomenal). Through his eyes the audience is reminded that there is poetry in everyday moments— if you’re looking for it, and if you’re privy to a perspective as beautiful and lyrical as Ross’s.
Ross’s camera is concerned with two distinct themes: Hale County the place and Hale County’s people, and he chooses to film each of these subjects differently. He will often choose a medium shot for filming people, especially if they are speaking directly to the camera. In these moments, the film feels like a “traditional” documentary, in which we discover through interviews, what the subjects are thinking and how they interpret their experiences. Or, he’ll film people in the midst of an activity: dancing, or moving furniture, or practicing basketball. Here, the camera feels low to the ground, personal, expertly positioned, and yet almost incidental. Conversely, when Ross films landscape, the camera is often tilted upward, capturing expansive skies, lightning arcing through dark clouds, and the tops of trees wavering in the wind. In these shots, if there is a human presence it’s registered in the rim of a basketball hoop, the corner of the roof of a house, or the back end of an SUV with its brake lights glowing red — hints of the human world jutting into the natural world, and feeling small in comparison. In this way, Ross’s film feels both grounded and mythological.
Ross is true to his word when he speaks to a time in that first intertitle; the scope of the movie transcends the moment he’s capturing, reaching back to the history of the place. In the film, Ross captures a field of cotton from the window of a passing car, kids spraying each other with a hose, and a slow approach to an old plantation, intercut with archival scenes of legendary Vaudeville actor Bert Williams from a 1913 movie called Lime Kiln Field Day (both Williams and the movie have a fascinating history). In this footage, Williams, done up in blackface, peers through the bushes, through time, at the crumbling façade of the edifice. A workman burns garbage in the yard. The smoke filters up through the trees. And then Ross cuts back to Williams, staring at the camera, a forlorn look on his face as the hand of a white crew member holds the slate up for the camera. Ross is acutely aware of the history and he understands that in places like Hale County, there is no such thing as an “innocent” shot — everything in the present speaks to the past.
If any part of Hale County falls short, it’s these sequences, mixed with an over-abundance of intertitles. These moments feel like Ross grabbing the audience by the shoulders and asking, “Do you get it?” And that’s a shame because he really doesn’t need to; Hale County communicates largely without the need of Ross’s intervention. On one hand, I wish Ross had had a little more trust in his audience, but on the other, when it comes to the history of racial inequality in America, it’s hard to blame him for being a little heavy-handed.
Ross’s film is at its most optimistic when the camera rests on the explorations of children. In one scene, a child runs from one end of the room to another, over and over, as the adults watch TV. The camera relentlessly follows in a gesture that is nearly as tireless as the child herself. In another scene, we find a child experimenting with bubbles in a bath, which Ross then transitions into a shot of the moon so that for a moment it’s as if the child is holding it in her hands. Then the moon darts around the sky, mirroring the child running from one end of the room to the other in the previous shot. And in one of the final scenes, a child playfully throws herself on the floor of a bowling alley as her father kneels with his arms open, waiting for the child to throw herself into his arms. Finally, he grabs hold of her himself and pulls her into an embrace. There is love in this film, and it comes both from the people in it and the filmmaker. Time in Hale County isn’t just a reference to the past, but also to the future.
Hale County continues a banner year of documentary releases, and along with Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, it is perhaps best at exploring a moment in time of a place and its people in a way that feels universal and urgent. There are moments when Ross’s greenness behind the camera (Hale County is his first feature-length film) comes out, but those are small instances that pale in comparison to his skill at capturing not only the strikingly beautiful images and sounds he captures but also the stories and history of the people of Hale County.