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Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), a transcendental and immersive documentary assembled by RaMell Ross, is comprised entirely of stray shots and bits of imagery. Droplets of sweat create patterns of dots as they hit the floor, footage that is then followed by drops of rain steadily falling on a slab of concrete sidewalk. A boy peers inside a mobile home’s window, turns and looks around, emits a short, shrill scream, and then carries on with his business. A young man stands on a trotting horse as it approaches the camera. These are just a few of the moments that imprint on my mind while watching this kaleidoscopic, multifaceted, formalist depiction of living in the South, in Hale County, Alabama, as an African-American.
In the annals of 20th-century American art, Hale County is a special site. It is here where Walker Evans and James Agee chronicled the lives of three families of tenant farmers in their unclassifiable Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a piece of art and literature that, for some denizens, left a stain on the place. And as Malcolm Jones has traced in The Daily Beast, the book inspired Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land (1954). Writer Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson revisited the families documented in Evans and Agee’s book for their Pulitzer Prize-winning And Their Children After Them (1989). Influenced by Evans, William Christenberry drew on Hale County for his photos of dilapidated buildings.
With Hale County This Morning, This Evening — playing in New York this weekend as part of New Director / New Films — Ross doesn’t draw upon the artworks associated with the land. Rather, he’s concerned with the here and now. (As of 2016, 57.8% of the population is black, and the median household income is $33,351.) In snatches of footage captured since moving to Hale County in 2009 as a basketball instructor in a youth program and as a photographer, Ross captures the everyday beauty and pain of living in the South for black people. For years, he follows two young men, Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, and their families. We see births, deaths, and everything in between in short, shard-like shots followed by more self-contained and protracted scenes (Quincy’s energetic son running to and fro in his living room; a locker room full of young men play-fighting).
Although Ross’s intent seems to beautify and aestheticize the everyday movements of contemporary black bodies, there is one moment — a crucial one — in which he draws upon film history. Ross intercuts him driving into the front entrance of what looks a former plantation with clips of Bert Williams from Lime Kiln Field Day (1913). Despite Williams wearing blackface, Lime Kiln Field Day contrasted with the typical, negative stereotypes of African-Americans prevalent in cinema at the time (most notably in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation of 1915) with depictions of middle-class leisure and romance. It is this clip, planted amidst a mosaic of imagery, that hints at what Ross is trying to achieve with Hale County: showing, in a positive and natural light, young black people with hopes, dreams, and aspirations (Daniel, for instance, lays out, broadly, his plans for the future, which begin with going to a good school, one that wants and respects him).
The scene that immediately follows the Lime Kiln Field Day clip is just as important. Ross shoots a man throwing a tire on a bonfire. He then films the luminescent patterns made when the smoke rises and the rays of the sun shine through it and the verdant treetops further away. Offscreen, the man and Ross get to talking. The gentleman informs the director that his grandson just got a scholarship for photography in college. “You see, we need more black folks making photos in the area and taking pictures and stuff, you know?”
Hale County This Morning, This Evening is not an issue film. Rather, like the best documentaries, it creates its own form from the material at hand and invites you to watch it in this new way. It is a film of representation, of portraying Southern black folks with complexity and humanity. This is a film that could’ve come off, in the hands of a hack director, as sentimental, simple, and narrow in scope, but by recording and presenting a multitude of granular moments from everyday life, Ross achieves something vast. Moreover, it connects the micro- and the macroscopic, from the minuscule to the colossal, the finite to the infinite and cosmic (including time-lapse photography and punctuating shots of the sun, moon, and an eclipse to boot). Following in the footsteps of Terrence Malick, Ross captures moments, big and small, with fragmentary imagery devoid of specific context, which gives the film a sense of the universal. Life in all its multi-splendored, many-colored beauty is there in the documentary to be seen in awe.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening screens as part of the New Directors / New Films program at the Walter Reade Theater (165 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) and the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on Saturday, April 7 and Sunday, April 8, respectively.