A story of love, hope and resilience, RaMell Ross’s non-fiction debut shines a light on a community that has remained historically unacknowledged and unseen
RaMell Ross demands your attention in his non-fiction debut, Hale County, This Morning This Evening. Set in Hale County, western Alabama, the documentary is an intimate look at a place and its people. It follows the lives of African-American locals in the historic South and in Ross’ own words, figures out “how they’ve come to be seen” as a result of the social construction of race.
This is the premise of the entire documentary. It highlights how perception changes depending on whose gaze is being reflected upon. In this case, Ross is both the observer and the subject. Having lived in Hale County since 2009 after moving there to work as basketball coach and photography teacher, the first-time filmmaker is himself among the residents he follows. This allows him to understand the area and its inhabitants in a way that most documentarians envy and he reminds us of this throughout the film.
Packed with poetic symbolism and raw visuals, Hale County tells the story of a community that has remained historically unacknowledged and unseen. Ross focuses on two young men: Daniel, an ambitious college student hungry to make it into the NBA, and Quincy, who alongside wife Boosie – whom he already shares energetic toddler son, Kyrie – is expecting the arrival of twins. Over the course of five years, Ross depicts them as everyday people who do what we all do: go to work, go to school, and raise their children. Yet he manages to draw something incredibly insightful from seemingly ordinary and mundane moments.
Daniel, who attends the predominantly black Selma University, is a symbol of hope. “I gotta make this thing work,” he says in one scene, referring to his premature basketball career. “I know I will, I have to.” His motivation to ‘make it’ is a reflection of the American dream – an aspirational attitude magnified by his faith in God. His mother Mary, is a contrast to this, having worked at the local catfish business (the town’s biggest employer) for 20 years. Quincy is also an employee at the company, though he expresses that he wants a better life for his son. “I’m making enough money just to go back to work,” he says. Despite this, and the tragic death of one of his newborn twins in the film’s most bluntly raw and poignant moments, Quincy continues to go about daily life.
Ross’s photographic portrayal of Hale County is just as honest as its people. Empty fields, rusty playgrounds and storm clouds are just a few aesthetics that showcase its beauty. Within the scenes, he weaves in snippets of history to interact with moments of the present, most memorably when he drives to an old plantation home which is constantly interrupted by footage from Bert Williams’ abandoned 1913 silent comedy, Lime Kiln Club Field Day (the oldest surviving film to feature African American actors). This is powerful not only because of Williams ‘ history (he was a widely successful vaudevillian who endured the ridiculing and animalisation of blacks in his era) but because it emphasises the way in which the ‘then’ has shaped the ‘now’ and the harsh reality that the world would rather ignore them just like it ignored their ancestors.
For me, Hale County is about humanising those who have been dehumanised. It’s a story of love, hope and resilience in its simplest form, making it intriguing, emotional and informative all at once.
Hale County, This Morning This Evening is out on January 18, 2019