There is both an ethereal and haunting beauty to RaMell Ross’ five-year portrait of rural life in Hale County, Alabama. Just like the heavenly “fairy land” referenced in lyrics of the Ella Fitzgerald & Louie Armstrong song “Stars Fell on Alabama,” which closes this Academy Award nominated film, Hale County This Morning, This Evening creates a dreamlike landscape were the passage of time is often difficult to place.
Aside from select title cards, which either feature questions to ponder or reveal key points of information, there is no linear narrative to guide viewers through the transition of time. From the opening frame Ross demands the audience’s complete attention to navigate the subtle changes, some of which will have a profound impact on how we view certain sections of the film.
Similar to Fredrick Wiseman’s examination of rural Amemerica in Monrovia, Indiana, Ross’ documentary takes an observational approach to the day-to-day life of this predominantly black community. Through the course of the film we witness the joys, pains, and seemingly inconsequential aspects of people’s daily lives. This includes basketball loving teens Daniel Collins, who is determined to make the college basketball team, and Quincy Bryant, who desires to make a better life for his girlfriend Boosie and their son Kyrie.
One of the remarkable things about Ross’ film is the way it slowly pulls one into this community. Despite only providing brief glimpses into everything from the school system to the barbershop and all things in between, the audience becomes deeply familiar with the rhythms the region. Much like Ross himself, who went to Hale County to teach photography and ended up falling in love with the place, by the time a tragic event happens it feels as if it was our own family impacted.
It is in its subtly and dreamlike aura where the film finds its greatest strength. About twenty minutes in, one starts to realize that Ross is quietly presenting a different view of blackness than is typically captured in cinema. While the film touches on aspects of poverty and violence, Ross observes one woman praying to god that no more youth’s lives will be lost, the film allows its subjects to simply be regular people. Whether it is acting goofy in the parking lot with friends, or lingering on the mundane moments, the film captures the various facets of blackness that often goes against the stereotypes that cinema often promotes.
Though there are times when Ross’ commentary is a bit too obvious, such as when he incorporates footage from the film Lime Kiln Club Field Day, which feature black vaudeville star Bert Williams in blackface, when driving up to a pristine plantation, Ross overall approach is refreshing to behold.
As visually captivating as the film is, the eerie score helps to enhance the otherworldly vibe, Ross’ camera movements are occasionally distracting. An example of this can be found in the scene where a woman tries to get a shy three-year-old girl, who is curious about Ross’ camera, to say her name. Ross abruptly pans away from the conversation to capture a noise on his right, which turns out to be rustling leaves, only to turn back to the conversation.
Offering an innovate look at how race and history has shaped Hale County, Ross shows that hopes and dreams of its inhabitants still have a chance at becoming a reality. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a captivating film that forces us to reflect on the representation of blackness in a whole new light.