When the “historic south,” as director RaMell Ross calls it, is mentioned in the mainstream, thoughts of the near-mythic white working class are typically invoked. While a valid population, the white working class is not the only demographic worth documenting with patience, care and consideration. Ross offers this consideration, delicacy and intimacy to Black locals of Hale County, Alabama, in his documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening.
The documentary, which he describes as a “tripling down on subjectivity” and a “Black Rorschach test,” loosely documents the lives of Daniel and Quincy, two young Black men in high school, as they navigate coming of age in this small corner of the “Black Belt” — a region of the southern U.S. known for its rich, black soil and the “peculiar institutions” that treasure it.
“Ross is most concerned with capturing the purity of Black life, with all of its beauty, joy and frustrations,” Shadow and Act writer Aramide Tinubu commented after watching the film at its Sundance premiere. “In doing so, he unravels Walker Evans and James Agee’s 1941 Depression-era study of sharecroppers in Hale County, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. ”
While initially an observational piece, Hale County quickly becomes an outgrowth of personal moments coupled with grand, dreamy understandings of different aspects of Black youth culture, especially basketball. The film also emphasizes the cultural impact of Black economics, Black history, and folksy, colloquial Black existentialism, among other things. It does not employ the use of narration, and has limited poetic title cards. In a simple visual exchange, Ross allows the viewer to gather understandings at their own pace, with his patiently presented vignettes.
On a recent SFFILM panel, Ross spoke on how Hale County was a process of repositioning the viewer, allowing them to see Blackness from within the community. When Shadow and Act followed up with Ross after the panel in a phone interview, he elaborated further on this particular comment.
“There’s a really symbiotic relationship between the media, visual world and the real world. It really dictates how we act and replaces the experiences of a lot of communities and a lot of people,” Ross said. “You look at the way in which Black folks are in film, most of the narrative — even aside from struggle — is not really expanding a form of intimacy or participation, in a world that’s shared by all humans. I think that we need to be really clear that when we make something, regardless of whether or not it’s fiction, it adds to someone’s imagination of whatever these really strict labels [are that] we have in our culture, which becomes content or a person’s understanding of the world.”
The idea of indelibly shaping the worldview of an audience is why Ross portrays Black people through a lens of empathy and intimacy in Hale County, versus “objectively” or passively observing their lives.
“When (I was in) Hale County and shooting, I was sitting and using the camera to look through my point of view, to get past all of those moments of immediate recognition for what something means and sort of allow the world in front of me to dissolve, breaking apart the structure, symbols and the semiotics of vision,” Ross told Shadow and Act. “Through that, (I can capture) something interesting or something unexpected. The film is very much about what you can’t predict happens that veers off path. (It’s) a process of looking; like, you’re there long enough for that to happen. (Hale County) allows the person to look without the time commitment that I put in. But then, with the sort of composite of all those (moments), it becomes some bizarre, hybrid consciousness of that way of looking.”
In five years of documenting Daniel and Quincy’s lives, Ross collected 1,300 hours of deeply intimate, unassuming moments, which included their families as well as the community in Hale County. With so much material to work with, it was inevitable to go through multiple versions of the film. During the SFFILM panel, Ross noted that the initial cut was drastically different than the final cut released for audiences. Originally, it was precisely the kind of Eurocentric, anthropological documentary, which felt too removed from its Black subjects. It was only after cutting out the standard devices that typically structure a documentary’s storytelling — the talking heads, the narration, the interviews — that the final cut took shape. In all this, it felt appropriate to ask Ross about the role that intuition played in crafting this film.
“I think it’s all about intuition, but it’s also all about reflexivity. You have to be conscious of the way in which we’re conditioned to see something. I’m very aware of the previous visualizations of people like myself by simple means of my own personal experience; looking at the media landscape, and being like, ‘Wait a second — that’s repetitive. That’s not me!’” Ross said.“So (when) I started my photography practice, (I) sort of built up a method for dealing with that: (I) practice patience — being reflective and reflexive in the moment. I’ve used the camera enough to be able to wield the machine in a way in which I can actually look. Then you’re just falling into yourself and in the zone of participating,” he continued.“Hopefully, you’re at the right spot at the right time, and something happens that can be transferred to me or to the viewer.”
Prior to being embedded in Alabama for half a decade — living in Hale County while actively following Daniel and Quincy — Ross had never been fully immersed in the cultural, southern Black experience. Though his father is from the south, Ross grew up in the north. Given that, Shadow and Act asked Ross how he was able to position himself as the right arbiter of this patchwork of deeply southern moments. Ross first addressed this query by clarifying an understanding of documentaries as a whole, before relating to his specific situation.
“I feel like that was my biggest thought. The thing that I tell a lot of people is, ‘Don’t try to make something that is objective, because you can’t. And if you do that, you’re lying,’” he said. “We’re not talking about journalism, (where) you’re trying to stay true to the facts and trying to engage them in a certain way. (We’re) talking about the documentary. A lot of people know documentary (as a genre) to be truthful — which it is — (and are) sort of predisposed to engage in some sort of truthful (pursuit). (But) it’s just as curated, and fictionalized (and) constructed as other film, which can be kind of a block sometimes because of the genre.”
“So I was like, ‘Look, I have a very specific view of the south, (based on) things I’ve learned through my education and stories from my dad. The best thing that I can do is triple down on my subjectivity, and then create an experience of someone of my subjectivity,’” Ross said. “It was for me to look, and for me to interrogate why I think that these two images together mean something specific. I’ll leave it open enough for (the viewer) to make (their) own meaning, but this is my version. I’m participating in (Daniel and Quincy’s) life, and that’s how I’m gonna show it. I think, almost always, the skirting (around) the acknowledgement that this is a singular point of view — an outsider’s or level of insider’s — is sometimes a problem. So I try to avoid that by just doubling down.”
“Most of the dazzling moments come from how Ross captures men playing basketball. It’s in the editing — match-cutting and allowing moments to linger — that the magic is created, employing art house techniques seen in films like Kahlil Joseph’s Until the Quiet Comes and the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (credited as a consultant here),” writer Tayler Montague said in a review of the film for The Museum of the Moving Image’s blog Reverse Shot. The assessment is an acute one. Weerasethakul’s multi-textured films, which seek to communicate and connect as much as they buck traditional conventions and assumptions, are clear progenitors if not rough blueprints for Ross’ unique cinematic approach.
“(Weerasethakul’s) work is influential in its singularity,” Ross said. “I think the most interesting thing about a piece of (his) work is that it can’t be fully understood,” he said of the Thai filmmaker, emphasizing Weerasethakul’s disinterest in catering to any other gaze other than Weerasethakul’s own. “It’s just all his s**t.”
Ross explained how he connected with Weerasethakul and got him to consult on Hale County.
“(Weerasethakul) worked with (my producer) Joslyn Barnes on a couple projects, and she thought that he would like (my film),” Ross continued. “And I was like, ‘If you say so.’ I wasn’t really familiar with his work before — (I) watched all his films when (my producer) told me about him. Then I was like, ‘This guy is a master.’ He loved (Hale County) and agreed to consult. So we would send him edits. He’d write an email about what he thought, and we’d go back to the edit space and work for a month, a week, whatever. (Then I’d) send him another one. So he was super influential — and the only person that looked at the edit before we finished.”
Hale County is still making the rounds, and Ross is leading the charge to ensure that the film gets in front of as many people as possible, including those back in Alabama. But the multi-hyphenate has much more he wants to accomplish as a filmmaker in the region.
“I have some other films planned for the south. I want to dedicate all my work and energy to the historic south. I just think it needs the love, you know?”
Malik Adán is a film and media critic. His words have landed at FilmThreat and REELYDOPE. A lover of food and most genre entries, his tastes are as broad as his afro. His work can be found on Rotten Tomatoes, malikadan.com or in the moment on Twitter @dapisdope.