'Hale County This Morning, This Evening', Is a Visually Poetic Critique of American Ideology
RaMell Ross's melange of visuals capture the elucidative intersections between religion and poverty; between life as seen from a child's eyes, and as from those of a young adult; between the present and a horrific history still breathing through America.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
14 Sep 2018 (US)Other
Midway through RaMell Ross's Hale County This Morning, This Evening, a black adult-education student rejects the stereotypical label against him of being "impovershed" when growing up in Alabama. "It was a joy to take off my shoes and run on the red clay," he recounts as part of his rich and varied childhood memories. In so doing, he renders an outright dismissal of America's ideological hegemony which favors financially lucrative experiences over all else. The speech is a small sample of Ross's sterling documentary debut, which casts a fresh, new lens to America's callously ignored Black Belt region.
While the film's central subjects are two recent high school graduates, Daniel Collins and Quincy Carter (more on each in a moment), the film's overarching narrative is far more sweeping meditation on the historic, poetic, and philosophical examinations of Hale County, Albama — a 15,000 person rural area, where blacks are the majority population.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening is not sequential, but impressionistic and synergistic, based more on visual and auditory impressions than linear narrative accounts. There are long takes of impassioned church ceremonies, which parallel stormy Alabama nights with magnificently thick clouds peering over a trailer community. Brief footage of a high school basketball game is immediately followed by a longer, rolling shot of a cotton field, the sounds of the game continuing to play off screen. Night scenes where plenty of teenage kids hang out aimlessly at parties and parking lots are juxtaposed with day scenes of children purposefully riding bicycles and playing on fields. When strewn together, this melange of visuals capture the elucidative intersections between religion and poverty; between life as seen from a child's eyes, and as from those of a young adult; between the present and a horrific history still breathing through America.
Guiding Ross's aggressive approach comes in the form of philosophical intertitles, which serve to elevate the film from a collection of footage to an exercise in multi-layered interpretation. One such inquiry, "What is the orbit of our dreams?", is immediately followed by a low-angled, long take of a basketball hoop under a clear, starry night. Is the orbit merely the basketball hoop, 18 inches in diameter? The limitless sky above? Perhaps both, working simultaneously?
Ross's footage of one of his two principal subjects, Daniel Collins — a freshman back-up guard at a local religious college, Selma University —delves into his philosophical investigation. On the one hand, Collins' limited NBA prospects are evident. A several minute scene of Collins standing quietly in the team's austere locker room (compare to Duke University), which is directly followed by an empty gymnasium for the game, conveys a disconnect between Collins' passionately stated NBA dreams, and the stark reality that Selma University is not an NCAA school, and its athletic department is not an NBA feeder program.
And yet, Ross is more interested in the beautiful spheres emerging from Collins' small town struggle. When filming Collins practicing alone in a gym, the camera is framed on Collins' impressive torso, where sweat beads glimmer like pearly orbs. Ross captures the precision and dynamism of Collins' jump shots as a vibrant piece of performance art which rivals a detached televised broadcast of an NBA basketball game.
Ross's other principal subject, Quincy Bryant, is a recent high school graduate who has thrust himself into an extremely challenging young adulthood. Bryant works at a catfish processing plant (a predominant employer in the county) to support his adorable toddler Kyrie, and Kyrie's mother Boosie, who is pregnant with Bryant's twins. This life may immediately be considered a grinding existence; one of long days, sleepless nights, and struggles to support a growing family at a young age.
But Bryant's footage deftly sifts between this socioeconomic framework to new interpretive terrain. In one scene, Quincy notes after another exhausting day, "I'm making enough just to go back to work." This eloquently stated, haunting quote is nothing short of an American anthem. It's emblematic of injustices which plague even those comfortably above the poverty line. It's also not entirely true.
In another scene, Kyrie runs between the living room and an adjacent hallway. At first, it's easy to notice the home's spare setting; with a white tile floor and little furniture, this is not the nuclear family colonial duplex so often seen in family films. But as Kyrie swings back and forth like a infinite pendulum of delight, a greater sense of wonder is borne. Carter's grinding job supports this joyous moment in the present. (Of course, one can also observe this moment, and consider Kyrie's future if Hale County's economic and educational opportunities do not improve).
Even when tragedy befalls Quincy's family — an infant crib death to one of the newly born twins — the film maintains its tonal focus on organically extracting higher meaning from everyday life. Certainly, Ross takes the necessarily conventional path of interviewing Quincy, and covering the funeral. But he finds a poignant parallel in a plain occasion several weeks after the funeral, when Quincy and Boosie undergo a humorously jumbled mid-afternoon drive-thru order. Just as the funeral scene eases from shock to melancholy, the drive-thru scene slowly graduates from something quotidian to a deeply unsettling feeling of loss. Which is to say, both scenes share a remarkable emotional overlap beneath their distinct surfaces.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening has some structural shortcomings. At 77 minutes, Ross has squeezed many styles into a dense, if not exhausting session. The shifts are not only challenging, but they risk an incomplete experience. Hale County This Morning, This Evening lacks the depth of personal connection to its subjects as does Steve James'Hoop Dreams (1994), in which the latter film's two basketball prospects, Arthur Agee and William Gates, develop a more individualized connection with the audience than is the case here. While Ross deftly weaves together several evocations of impressionism, photojournalism, and abstract dreamscapes, because he never fully commits into one style, Hale County This Morning, This Evening can at times feel like an ingenious template rather than a fully realized cinematic interpretation.
But Ross's refusal to delve into one style may be a meta-commentary on intentionalist documentary filmmaking. Conventional documentaries on socioeconomic injustices often attempt fuller, or perhaps, lengthier investigations into marginalized classes of America. Hale County This Morning, This Evening, questions this approach. Documentary film is, at its best, a series of evocations to encourage deeper, more considered connection to the subject matter's reality. An open-hearted personal connection has no adequate substitute.