A very particular sort of camera is at work in Hale County This Morning, This Evening. It peers from unconventional angles, lingers on images longer than they at first seem to deserve, and generally offers a perspective that is at once unremarkable, given the everyday subject matter, and revealing.
Holding this camera is RaMell Ross, a first-time filmmaker who moved to the Alabama county of the title to coach basketball and teach photography. “Photographing in my day-to-day I began filming, using time to figure out how we’ve come to be seen,” early onscreen text reads. Ross then opens his documentary with two sequences that employ stereotypical media images of African-American life: one involves a handful of glowering young men in a car listening to rap music, while the other observes a group of emotional parishioners worshiping in church. Although there is later use of archive footage from a silent minstrelsy from 1913, most of the rest of Hale County This Morning, This Evening is less concerned with the past—how African-Americans, particularly Southern rural African-Americans, have “come to be seen”—and more concerned with offering an alternate vision of the present, one that introduces new ways of gazing upon this community.
That’s not to say the documentary is Pollyannaish or blind to hard realities. Indeed, in the way it prioritizes an idiosyncratic aesthetic, the film obtains a certain objectivity about the people it depicts. (It’s clearly more interested in the medium than delivering a particular message, even as it’s well aware of the McLuhanesque adage that they’re the same thing.) Hale County consists of a bounty of mesmerizing images, from seemingly out-of-context inserts (an older woman’s hand gently tapping a bright yellow fly swatter against her pink checkered dress) to shots that are woven into thematic montages, as when a few seconds of a basketball player’s sweat dripping onto the ground are immediately followed by rain splattering on concrete. Consistently, Ross finds an interesting place to put the camera to alter not only what we see, but how we see it. (Occasionally this is cheeky, as when a birthday party balloon happens to obscure the face of a guest, so that it looks like his head is a giant, expressionless emoticon.) Time-lapse footage is another effective technique, capturing cows spending a night in a field or the passing of day into night from the vantage point of looking up through a basketball hoop. One magical moment is equally manipulated: as a little boy plays with soap bubbles in the tub, the shot dissolves into another one of a full moon, so that for a second it looks as if the child holds a glowing orb in his hands.
Eventually, Hale County settles in to focus on a handful of figures, including Daniel, a college basketball player with NBA dreams, and Quincy and Boosie, who share a toddler son and have twins on the way. This brings a bit more concrete context, as well as “narrative,” into the documentary, but it still only provides perfunctory information. Hale County is something of a Frederick Wiseman doc (In Jackson Heights) in its sense of hands-off observation, but it’s also far more complicated in terms of how that observation takes place and is later manipulated. In one extended sequence, for instance, an echoing call—“Whose child is this?”—gets repeated over a host of images, many of which do involve children. In terms of the post-production, Ross’ editing team (in addition to himself) includes Robb Moss, Joslyn Barnes, and Maya Krinsky, while the film’s “creative adviser” is the supremely gifted Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Cemetery of Splendor). The arrangement of the footage may not build to as cohesive and powerful a thematic punch as it does in something like Cameraperson (doc cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s personal merging of unused material from a dozen different projects), but it still registers with a unifying force. By showing us so many of Hale County’s little corners, in surprising and interesting ways, the movie seemingly gives you an intimate knowledge of the place.
There is another reason you feel this way, and it’s related to Ross’ opening comment about time. Hale County This Morning, This Evening recalls two other 2018 films—Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and the documentary Chosen: Custody of the Eyes—in the way it employs the transcendental style (Schrader’s own phrase for films that employ austere aesthetics such as fixed cameras and long takes). Consider a lengthy scene in the locker room of Daniel’s basketball team, as they kill time before a game. The camera observes, unmoving, from the corner, as the young men at turns tease, encourage, and ignore each other—some of them constantly in motion, others stoically still. We wait, and wait, and wait for something dramatic to happen. That nothing does is the point. What occurs is less important than the fact that we were there, not only watching these men, but hopefully seeing them, as well.