Documentary filmmaking is an intimate act. The subject must trust the director enough to allow the camera to capture their most intimate moments and secrets, laying them bare before a prying and curious audience. It’s not something that should be done casually -- especially when it puts Black, brown, and impoverished people on display, many of whom don’t have any real control over how they are presented to the world. In his debut feature documentary, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, director RaMell Ross immerses himself deep into the Alabama Black Belt, following two young men, Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant over the course of five years.
Throwing away the traditional tropes often seen in documentary film, Ross is most concerned with capturing the purity of Black life, with all of its beauty, joy, and frustrations. A photographer and basketball coach, Ross moved to Alabama in 2009 and decided to shift how rural poor Black people are seen in the media. 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. In the text, there was not a single close-up of a Black face.
Told non-linearly, Hale County This Morning, This Evening is made up of incredible moments and moving scenes. It’s up to the audience to try and ground themselves in the film, with Ross acting like a guide, providing statements but mostly asking questions about Black life, what the source of our dreams are, and if we can even be contained within the frame of a film.
As we come to know Daniel, who plays basketball at the HBCU Selma University with hopes of making it to the major leagues, we also meet his mother, Mary, whom he is somewhat estranged from because he was raised by his grandmother. We watch scenes from the locker room, Daniel and his teammates roughhousing and preparing for a game, as well as the young man's quiet commentary on his height – he’s not even six feet tall.
Quincy, on the other hand, is on another path entirely. He works at a catfish plant (nearly everyone in the community does) and is a father to a boisterous baby boy named Kyrie. Ross spends as a great deal of time focused on the rambunctious toddler, as he rips and roars through the house or sits fascinated by bubbles during his bathtime. Quincy's wife Boosie looks on at her son wearied -- pregnant with fraternal twins.
Ross doesn't sit in any particular moment, he lets it swirl all around him. There are more babies, fireworks, a tragedy, and older ladies talking. He chooses to capture it as he sees it. He's simply present, catching it all without exploiting his subjects or forcing a story out of them. Admittedly, the questions Ross posed sometimes felt too whimsical to grasp. His statements were much more profound helping the audience orient themselves, especially when the film got a tad clunky, panning out just a tad too far for the audience to follow.
The archival footage of Vaudeville comedian Bert Williams is perhaps the most profound component of Hale County This Morning, This Evening. It's a strange and paralyzing sight to see the Bahamian comedian in blackface from the 1913 film, Lime Kiln Club Field Day. It forces us all to examine how Blackness is handle on screen today in comparison to how it was handles then. Has much has really changed in one-hundred plus years? It’s a searing juxtaposition, one that shouldn't be overlooked or taken lightly.
Hal Country This Morning, This Evening works best in its quietest moments, when Ross allows his audience just to sit and engage with the subjects. When he zooms in, forcing us to take in one particular frame instead of everything around us, the poetry of the film is elevated.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening premiered Friday, Jan. 19, 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami