One of last year’s more powerful and affecting films is the 70-minute documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening, a pointillist portrait of black life in Alabama in which a series of bright little moments together form a broad and gorgeous tableau.
In his first film, photographer RaMell Ross, who is on the faculty at Brown University, eschews both narrative structure and issues-oriented social commentary in favor of a hypnotic array of images and sounds that leave the viewer to draw his own conclusions, or, better yet, to simply bathe in the feeling being created. Two totems — the cross and the hoop — hang silently over this community, its populace clambering beneath them, around them, seeking to get close to them. “Only Jesus Saves,” says the neon legend on the cross outside a church. “Then why is everyone so fixated on me?” the hoop might as well reply. Ross shoots one scene upward through an outdoor hoop with a frayed net, the hours rushing by via time-lapse photography. A later time-lapse shot, in sardonic counterpoise, is trained on the rim during a college-basketball game. In mad sequence, a succession of eager, disembodied hands appears, each of them carrying a basketball to present like a holy offering. From the perspective of the hoop, the obsession with basketball seems strange and funny.
At the center of this wondrous film (which here in New York City will have a one-week run at the Metrograph Cinema starting Friday) are two young men, Quincy and Daniel. Quincy works at a dull job and, with his wife, Boosie, is raising a boy named Kyrie. Daniel, younger, hopes to make it as a basketball player at Selma University. The historical echo isn’t lost on Ross, who captures Daniel musing about Selma in a car. Apparently there was some sort of event at the famous bridge there. Oprah was present. Yet her celebrity aura is as distant and irrelevant to Daniel as Martin Luther King Jr.’s. He is trying simply to make it as an athlete, and the alternative is unpleasant to contemplate. “Near everybody,” Ross informs us in one of his intertitles, “works at a catfish plant. Quincy does, Daniel dreads it.” As for Daniel’s mother, “After 20 years Mary could cough a catfish.”
The film is attuned to the treadmill feel of daily duty. (“I’m making enough money just to go back to work,” Quincy says at one point.) But its characters are not tragic victims, because Ross manages to convey sympathy for them without sentimentalizing them into objects of pity. They’re energetic, funny, reflective, and durable, rather than passive or helpless. There’s no sinister oppression at work, just people getting on with things. A middle-aged man remembers running with bare feet through red clay, picking pecans, learning to wring a chicken’s neck, being treated with tree bark for strep throat. “What is really poor and impoverished?” he wonders.
The director, an invisible presence in the film, is nevertheless an arch one. Boosie seems insufficiently interested in the project. In revenge Ross smites her with a mordant intertitle: “Boosie careth not about the film.” Yet, gamely, she allows Ross’s cameras in the room while she is giving birth to twins, Karmyn and Korbyn. We see them resting happily next to each other. Then, another, devastating title: “Korbyn was buried in the early afternoon,” struck down by Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. After a brief funeral sequence, the family moves on. The resilience seems unimaginable.
At times Ross is droll in the mode of, say, Richard Linklater, as when a man wearing a t-shirt reading “REAL: Realize Everyone Ain’t Normal — Trust No One” fantasizes about an era when there were no guns and people used spears instead. At times the camera captures a nervy, nameless energy, as when young men sit around a locker room before a basketball contest.
Ross’s finest images, free as they are of the lachrymose and the trite, carry a shivery freight, as when a boy regarding the soap on his body in the bath becomes the host for an overlaid image of the moon, or a burning rubber tire produces smoke through which the light filters in beguiling patterns. Time and again, Ross finds serenity and even beauty in the mundane, making Hale County into an exquisite work of visual poetry.