By Liam Lacey
Since its debut at the Sundance Film Fest a year ago, RaMell Ross's poetic documentary, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, has gained in reputation, ending up on critics’ top 10 lists and earning an Oscar doc shortlist nomination. In a year of overtly political African-American films, from Black Panther to BlacKkKlansman, Hale County is something different, a deliberately impressionistic and exploratory film.
Within the kaleidoscope of moments, with five years shooting compressed into its 76-minute run time, the rural Alabama-set film intermittently focuses in on the lives of two young men: Daniel Collins, a basketball player heading to university, and Quincy Bryant, a struggling young father.
It would be a stretch to call them protagonists: They're more like markers here, reminding us of time's uneven forward movement. Reminiscent of the later quasi-experimental work of Terrence Malick, the chronology of Hale County is heightened, stretched and bent. Ross, a photographer who teaches at Brown University, uses scenes of ordinary life --church, basketball practice, ordering fast food at a drive through -- shot at unexpected, partially occluded angles.
Other sequences are dreamily ecstatic, including a slow-motion drive down an empty main street where crowds wait for a parade. A tire fire creates fractal patterns of smoke and flame on the evening sky; basketball players wrestle and jostle in a locker room in strange choreography; voices murmur while the film frame is filled with a gradual lunar eclipse.
The onscreen subtitles, too, are poetically artificial: "The discovering began after I moved to Alabama in 2009 to teach photography and coach basketball," announces the opening subtitle, followed by, "Photographing in my day-to-day I began filming, using time to figure out how we came to be seen." He questions his photographic process ("How do we not frame someone?") the treatment of time ("Where does time reside?") and the constraints on his characters' aspirations ("What is the orbit of our dreaming?").
Sometimes, he gets holy. When a woman, Boosie, chooses not to be in the film during the later weeks of her pregnancy, the subtitle reads: " "Carrying twins now, Boosie careth not about the film." Careth? The archaic usage is Biblical ("She that is married careth for the things of the world", Corinthians, 7:34). suggesting how Ross is attempting to sanctify the subjects of his film.
The language and images can be disorienting, there's a palpable organizing intelligence here, as sequences are linked by colour, by the ominous grinding electronic sound-track, or juxtapositions of angled close-ups of people contrasting with the impassive landscape.
All of this serves to put us in an odd psychological space, with commingled beauty and dread. The characters, themselves, at work and play, in worship and grief, look beautiful, shot in halos of soft light. The film as a whole is threaded with moments of fear, especially for the well-being and survival of children. Night-time scenes show police pull-overs (one, oddly, with a goat standing in a car's headlights.) A young man in a parking lot offers the director his idea for a comedy: A world in which cops use spears to apprehend suspects, throwing them in the backs of running fugitives.
Ross eventually shows his didactic hand, and his agenda of bringing "visual justice,” as he has described it, to an unrepresented community. (Hale County was the locale of Walker Evans and James Agee's famous 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, though the poor tenant farmers in that book were all white).
The camera, inside a car, races through the parade route of the earlier slow-motion shot, then turns into a lane toward an old plantation house, surrounded by trees. The film cuts to a sequence from a century-old film of silent film era comedian Bert Williams, a Bahamanian American, who wore burn-cork blackface to darken his already dark skin. The clip is from an unfinished 1913 film called Lime Kiln Club Field Day, believed to be the oldest surviving footage of a film with an African-American cast.
The intrusion of this century-old monochrome film, which pops up like a gruesome dream, reminds us of the historical filter through which we watch African-Americans on film and reiterates the questions that Ross has asked throughout. How do we frame or not frame someone, or frame them differently? How does time, or history, change how we see? How does the gravity of circumstance affect the orbit of people’s dreams?
Hale County, in the best sense, is the kind of film that asks more questions than it provides answers for..
Director: RaMell Ross. With Quincy Bryant, Daniel Collins and Latrenda “Boosie” Ash. Hale County This Morning, This Evening, plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox beginning on Saturday.