HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING

Forward Motion

(The 9th annual DOC NYC ran November 8-15 in New York City. Lead Critic Chris Reed was there so stay tuned for his review and interviews. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month to help keep us going?)

Elliptical, beautiful and narratively unconventional, Hale County This Morning, This Evening rewards the viewer with images and passages of incomparable power. Set in Alabama among middle- and lower-income African American communities, this experimental documentary weaves scenes shot over a number of years into a gently undulating tapestry of time and place, the full pattern of which emerges only once the film is done. Seemingly fleeting moments – of families, children playing, stars, thunderstorms, street lights, deer, and more – resonate long after they have faded to black, reminding us of the simultaneous resilience and transience of existence. A stunning example of cinematic metaphysics, it is a remarkable debut for director RaMell Ross.

Ross moved to Alabama in 2009, soon thereafter embarking on a multi-year project photographing two primary characters, Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, men initially in their late teens, and the families, friends and neighborhoods around them. Intimately embedded with his subjects, Ross remains hidden, throughout, though he adds a directorial point of view with occasional title cards, most of which ask philosophical questions such as “What is the orbit of dreaming?,” “How do we frame someone?” and “Where does time reside?” Indeed, these queries are the very essence of filmmaking, and Ross thereby challenges us to revisit our assumptions about the structure of story.

Daniel goes to nearby Selma University, where he plays basketball, while Quincy stays home and starts a family of his own. Their respective trajectories take them on diverging journeys, though both remain tied to their roots, their parallel universes running in tandem through Ross’ careful editing choices. I love the pace of the cross-cutting, with Ross crafting montages of long-held, hypnotic sequences that he occasionally interrupts with sudden bursts of shorter shots. From a scene of Quincy’s son Kyrie running with joy back and forth through the house or an extended take of Daniel and his teammates hanging out in the locker room, we shift to lyrical moments of the night sky or, my favorite visual, the moon and sun superimposed. Where does time reside? Within the forward motion of the moving image.

All the while, slowly and stealthily, Ross builds a framework from which he examines race and social class, and their connection, in the America of today. Hale County, Alabama, is both its own unique location and a metaphor for the country at large. Ross briefly breaks his otherwise purely observational style at one point to juxtapose shots of early-20th-century African American actor Bert Williams, performing in blackface, with modern-day shots of an old slave plantation, reminding us of the complicated, not-so-distant past that informs the present. Nothing much happens here, it seems at first, and yet everything does: life, death and the search for meaning. How do we frame someone? Exactly as does RaMell Ross.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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