Day Shifts

Nick Pinkerton on RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

RaMell Ross, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, 2018, color, sound, 76 minutes.

RAMELL ROSS’S FEATURE DOCUMENTARY DEBUT Hale County This Morning, This Evening isn’t a character study in the usual sense, though it does single out two principal characters, both young black men living in a low-income area of rural Alabama, for name-tag identification. Daniel is an incoming freshman joining the basketball team at tiny HBCU Selma University. Quincy, seemingly around the same age, has already begun shouldering adult responsibilities, raising a son, Kyrie, with his wife Boosie. We get to see into the lives of both young men, and rather more into the vivid life of the community that they grew up in, for it is Ross’s seeming conviction that this will show us something about them that fly-on-the-wall observation will not. Ross packs manifold moments of everyday loveliness into this milieu, but even more remarkable is what he manages to leave out—the whiff of condescension, the petition for pity, the impulse to feel sorry for.

Hale County is, in essence, a collection of vignettes, many of which last only the length of a single shot—though some of these shots linger for quite some time, as when observing the basketball team’s locker room horseplay. The scoring is delicate and atmospheric, and images are mostly allowed to speak for themselves, though sparing intertitles do appear, serving to complicate more than contextualize. Sometimes they move along the on-screen stories and, in one case, they announce the death of an infant. Other times they pose questions: “How do we not frame someone?” “Where does time reside?” “What is the orbit of our dreaming?” “What happens when all the cotton is picked?” Presumably, these are the questions that troubled Ross during his shooting outings in Hale County, and he is trying to answer them in this, the finished work that resulted from them. And still other times, they are downright strange, as in the almost biblical phrasing “Boosie careth not about the film.”

Ross’s cinematic grammar is every bit as idiosyncratic—his off-kilter compositions work to defamiliarize American rituals of sport, church, and home, forcing viewers to stay involved, reorienting themselves from shot to shot. The intention to delineate the quotidian life of Hale County in fine-grain detail is announced in the film’s opening images, which isolate the sight of a little girl plaiting her hair in a church pew while the preacher onstage intones, “It’s the little things we do . . .” Such minutiae plays out against an elemental, often cosmic backdrop, returning us to the awesome, primordial forces working outside of human operations. The sky above is repeatedly seen alive with lightning, and, as befits the This Morning, This Evening of the title, the image of the sun rising and falling recurs. Ross moves between the macro and micro with an ease that at times recalls Terrence Malick’s work with DP Emmanuel Lubezki, though he has a humor that is all his own: For example, the lovely and very funny moment where he catches some kids viewing a solar eclipse through a Chick-fil-A waffle fry. (The white folks at the factory, someone notes, all have their eclipse glasses.)

RaMell Ross, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, 2018, color, sound, 76 minutes.

In Ross’s hands, intimate, human, physically grounded episodes routinely become passageways into the operations of nature: An athlete’s sweat dripping onto concrete precedes a cut to falling rain; a scene of a baby washing himself is suddenly interrupted by the superimposed image of a full moon in the child’s palm. This is the sort of bold visual metaphor rarely seen outside of the silent cinema, which itself makes an unexpected appearance with a cameo by blackface-painted African American actor Bert Williams in an excerpt from Lime Kiln Field Day (1913), believed to be the first film made with an all-black cast.

Williams’s cameo is the only archival insertion in the film, a chancy, jolting, pop-you-on-the-nose maneuver that interrupts the presiding atmosphere of reverie. It is this willingness to break his own rules that marks Ross as a really exciting filmmaker, as opposed to one who knows how to stay in his lane and reliably cater to the tastes of festival programmers. As an opening title informs us, Ross arrived in Hale County in 2009 to teach photography and coach basketball, though sometime along the way he began “using time to figure out how we’ve come to be seen.” The subject of that “we” is open to interpretation, but it is a fact that the great majority of the individuals who appear in his film are black, as is Ross—if you couldn’t intuit as much from the film itself, it is quite explicit in a moment where an off-camera Ross, talking to an older male interlocutor who has stumbled across him in the midst of shooting. “We need more black folks making photos in the area.”

The area has produced more than a few photos of note, for it was in Hale County in the summer of 1936 that Walker Evans shot many of the images that would comprise Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), and where James Agee, accompanying him, wrestled mightily with the moral quandary of a true and ethical depiction of material poverty. Ross doesn’t make self-examination on this matter his central subject, as Agee did, but nevertheless, his awareness of his status as both an insider and an outsider in the community that he is documenting, and a sense of the responsibilities that come with that status, resounds throughout. Ross is a Southerner, but only barely, hailing from the border country of Fairfax, Virginia––he was a touted point guard in high school who was recruited to play at Georgetown. After multiple injuries during his college ball career, he turned to other pursuits, settling on still photography. Photographers who turn to moving-image work will often bring a fussiness about framing along with them, but Ross doesn’t take cinema for a slow flip through a portfolio and is attentive to matters of motion, cadence, and duration. He has an idiosyncratic eye but also the ability to react that makes for a great documentarian—see how, when filming a church gathering, he pans the camera just in time to catch a soloist erupting in a magnificent round of affirmations, repeating, “My soul says ‘Yes, Lord.’”

RaMell Ross, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, 2018, color, sound, 76 minutes.

Hale County doesn’t follow a clear timeline, nor does it push and pull its available plotlines—Daniel’s pursuit of NBA glory, Quincy and Boosie’s confrontation with family tragedy—into familiar narrative shapes. It does, nevertheless, have a structure, one so unforced and digressive that it risks seeming as if it lacks structure; each scene is only obliquely suggested by that which preceded it. “I’m making enough money just to go back to work,” Quincy gripes, almost to himself, about punching the clock at the catfish plant. This leads up to Mary, Daniel’s mother and a fellow factory employee, complaining about the aches and pains of twenty years on the job before she pauses to cross-examine a nearby three-year-old, grilling the child to speak aloud her own name and address before concluding that the tyke “ain’t gonna make it in Head Start.” From here we move to a classroom setting, likely an adult education class, where the instructor is discussing rural poverty. A middle-aged student with a Northern accent recounts the joys of visiting the South as a child, concluding that amid such bounty, “What is really poor and impoverished?” And so, in a few short leaps, Hale County touches on aspiration and education, distinctions of region and class, not as abstracts but as lived experience.

Through its deceptively rambling progress, certain motifs recur in Hale County, most prominent of these being cyclical images. These range from the diurnal progress of the sun to the sight of a bee trundling in little circles in the bed of the pickup truck, from energetic toddler Kyrie running back and forth in the living room to a closing sequence in which Daniel runs drills with his Selma coach. Ross doesn’t turn away from suffering—in a brilliant turn, Quincy is introduced having his nose pierced, letting go of a single tear as he does—but it does not define his subjects nearly so much as their resilience and endurance, the ability to get up and go another day. A death in the family, as we see, does not constitute the death of the family, while a life rich in beauty is difficult to designate as merely “impoverished.” Ross’s film is not one of lack but of abundance, a melic work as full-throated in its affirmation as that rafter-ringing “Yes, Lord.”

Hale County This Morning, This Evening opens in select theaters on September 14.