Hale County This Morning, This Evening is one of those films that feels important, vital, and utterly necessary from its very first frame. The result of five years spent deeply embedded in small-town Alabama, RaMell Ross’ slender documentary is a timely examination of race, representation, and American image-making.
A lyrical, beautiful, hypnotic study of how the quotidian is a series of constantly unexpected surprises, Hale County This Morning, This Evening follows the lives of three African American inhabitants of Hale County. There is no voice over, no sense of being prodded or directed by the director, none of those feelings of being mildly manipulated that often cling after watching a documentary.
Speaking over the phone just a few days before 2019’s Oscars ceremony – where Hale County found itself nominated for Best Documentary – RaMell explains that despite the lengthy filming period, and the voluminous amount of footage captured (1300 hours is ground down to 80 perfect minutes), “the film knew what it would look like and how it would be organised after five months of shooting.”
It looks extraordinary. RaMell, who went to college on a basketball scholarship, brings an incredible sense of kineticism to things. There is constant motion, constant movement. Athletes thrum around locker rooms, their nerves and anxieties etched into every jerky knee and clenched jaw; children tumble and stumble over and over again. In one incredible moment, a storm of biblical proportions breaks and we watch the kind of dancing that can only ever be borne out of genuine spontaneity.
“In those moments it’s more than an inner smile,” RaMell says when we ask how it feels to be there for moments like the aforementioned storm: ”I feel like it’s my privilege, the biggest privilege I’ve ever had – to participate in someone else’s life. This is my job.” Constantly striving to “translate the innate profundity of the human experience,” into image, RaMell tells us that photography is a massive and constant source of inspiration for him, with the likes of Dwayne Michaels and Jeff Wall being particular points of reference.
Not just an exceptionally good looking film, Hale County This Morning, This Evening forces the reader to consider aspects of the contemporary African American experience that rarely make the big screen, and uses a historical framing device – which we won’t spoil here – to explore how the bulk of images of POCs we see in the media aren’t shot by or aimed at POCs.
It’s three stories weave through love, loss, failure, regret, hope, redemption. They are fundamentally human experiences that the director happened to be there for. He does not shape their destiny but is a witness to a lived testament. The result is an extraordinarily beautiful, incredibly potent example of how documentary still has the power to reframe the world in front of our very eyes.
“It’s a dream story more than a beginning, middle, end narrative that has a takeaway,” RaMell says. “Narrative happens after experience. Always.”