Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Directed by: RaMell Ross
Classification: PG; 76 minutes
Hale County This Morning, This Evening arrives with an unspoken condition: Acclaimed photographer RaMell Ross’s first feature-length documentary invites viewers to interrogate their perception of the events on screen.
The fact that the film has snagged a spot on the Academy Award shortlist for best documentary feature is evidence of its unique prowess. Hale County opts for a vernacular of poetry rather than prose, and forfeits a straightforward narrative in order to place viewers in the driver’s seat of answering a question posed by the director: “To figure out how we’ve come to be seen.” To answer it, Ross utilizes a method that’s both stunning homage to the tradition of portraiture, and a bold and calculated retrofit of the genre designed to visualize the complexities of black American life.
Filmed over several years in the titular Alabama county, the passage of time is the film’s secondary narrator as we follow the stories of Daniel and Quincy, the former a student at Selma University and the latter a local husband and father. While it’s possible to dismiss Hale County as a series of disjointed, delicately crafted vignettes, a more nuanced reading recognizes the way multiple angles of the same scene come together to form a matrix of stories anchored squarely to the specific landscape.
Location here is critical, because while the breadth of experiences allows one to imagine the film set in any U.S. city, it’s evidently not. This singular portrait of America’s Black Belt provides the backdrop of the film’s multiple subjects, and is amplified in one of its most subtle, and affecting, scenes – an extended pan of an endless field that initially looks like snow, but is revealed to be a cotton field in contemporary Selma, a moment that captures the dense, multilayered history of the area’s residents.
Through a dexterous eye, Hale County calls into question a director’s role in framing. Because while nothing escapes the flare of Ross’s wide-reaching, intergenerational lens, he provides his subjects with the agency to direct how their stories unfold. Throughout the film, the ambience of background chatter calls your attention away from the onscreen action in an effort to amplify the unseen tension of private moments – it allows an invasive, almost startling intimacy to the film.
From a tight shot of a fly swatter batting relentlessly against an anxious, weathered knee; to a teenager caught in the total bliss of catalyzing his friends’ eruption of laughter; to a firsthand account of a toddler’s erratic exercise routine, every inch of life’s mundanities is captured with a granular attention to detail, and rendered luminescent in the process.
For this reason, Hale County invites a wholly immersive viewing experience with choose-your-own adventure characteristics. Deciding how to perceive the film’s narrative is a responsibility Ross hands over to the viewer as an engaged participant. Which scenes are allowed to fly under the radar, and which undergo the scrutiny of searching for an underlying metaphor? When a barber shields the eyes of a young patron receiving a haircut, or a coach performs a cognitive test on an injured football player, do you see innocuous moments, or the minutiae of communities of support?
At every juncture, Ross elects for ambiguity and poses a question to the viewer to answer how black bodies are viewed, encouraging the audience to perform the labour of challenging their expectations.
In an era where films such as Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk have received accolades for their capacity to reimagine expressions of black life on film, Ross contributes to this new canon by staring down the assumption of what type of black lived experiences mass audiences are capable of acknowledging.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening opens Jan. 19 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net).
Special to The Globe and Mail