It’s not every day that you witness a new cinematic language being born, but watching RaMell Ross’ evocatively titled documentary Hale County, This Morning, This Evening qualifies. The director, a photographer and teacher who was coaching basketball in the middle of the Black Belt region of the American South, knew the subjects of his documentary for several years before deciding to create a film around them. The finished work, a half decade in the making, is informed by his deep familiarity with its characters, which might be one reason why he has the confidence to abandon traditional narrative structures and strike out on his own lyrical path.
Throughout Hale County, Ross fixes his camera on quotidian moments, fragments of scenes. A woman tapping a flyswatter against her knee. A girl casually braiding her hair. A toddler running back and forth across a small living room. A droplet of sweat falling off a ballplayer. The shadow of a football throw. This kind of cutaway might provide some lively background atmosphere in a typical film, but for Ross, this is the foreground, even as he starts to focus on his more “traditional” subjects: Quincy and Daniel, African-American teens living in a quiet Alabama town. Quincy works at the catfish plant, supporting a young family. Daniel has dreams of leaving and making a life for himself; he sees school as a way out, and basketball as a way through school. When we see him working on his outside shot — with Ross keeping the camera so tight that we mostly just see the boy’s shoulders — we’re not just watching a young athlete practicing, we’re watching someone in the midst of an existential task.
By sticking to his impressionistic perspective, by fracturing his narrative, Ross achieves something genuinely poetic — a film in which its very lightness is the key to its depth. Hale County traverses years, encompasses tragedy and beauty, all in just 78 minutes. His is an empathetic camera, focusing on the kinds of details that pull us into this world, with a photographer’s eye for taking everyday moments and finding transcendence in them.
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But there’s something more significant going on here. Occasionally, the text of cryptic little phrases and questions flash briefly across the screen. The one that really grabbed me asks, “How do you not frame someone?” That might sound gnomic, but it lies at the heart of Ross’ achievement. By fragmenting our point of view, he draws our attention to what we can’t know. All too often, these longitudinal documentaries — movies that chart people’s lives over multiple years — have a kind of totalizing ambition. They pretend to be novelistic thoroughness. But can a mere film contain and explain an entire human life? (And let’s not forget, those impressively long, years-in-the-making documentaries often are made by white filmmakers about black subjects.) Ross understands that it can’t, and he’s found a way to express that through form. He immerses us in this world, but then lets the mystery be.