Church services are always humming along in RaMell Ross’s meditative documentary, Hale County This Morning, This Evening. The thump of basketballs against hardwood is perpetual, the stars wheel continually overhead, and distant lightning flashes eternally behind dark, rolling clouds as kids set off bottle rockets. The supplies of fireworks and young people seem endless, but that’s an illusion. Some kids get older in the course of the film. Others do not.
“Where does time reside?” Ross asks in one of his occasional on-screen texts, well after he’s drawn you into the film’s disjunctive, single-take views of today’s rural Alabama. Maybe the answer is that time resides in three places at once: the shifting, teasing, broken cinematic pattern that he constructs out of captured moments; the unfolding circumstances in which his subjects pass their lives, which feel precious and unrepeatable, yet as static as the barometric pressure; and history, which hovers both inside and outside the movie’s frame.
The external part of that history has to do with Hale County’s exalted place in the development of American photojournalism. This was Walker Evans’s destination in 1936, when he took the pictures of white sharecroppers that went into Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Although James Agee’s text for that book questioned whether he and Evans had been intruders more than helpers, and spoke eloquently of how the reality of Hale County escaped their best efforts at description, the photographs immediately became a moral and aesthetic touchstone thanks to the way they engaged head-on with their subjects, who posed with simple dignity while frankly returning the viewer’s gaze.
Ross knows all this but mentions none of it, leaving Evans’s achievement as the unacknowledged, contrasting background to his own work. He came to Hale County in 2009 to take a teaching position, made the acquaintance of local families, and after a while began to shoot the five years of ordinary, daily experience that he later condensed into 76 minutes for Hale County This Morning, This Evening. His choice of visual approach is virtually the opposite of Evans’s. Ross’s images are intimate and emotive; the camera often follows people closely or shows details as if through his subjects’ eyes, and a heightened color intensifies the mood. A point in Evans’s favor: He often stood back when taking the picture, and so made his distance from his subjects—physical, social, cultural—integral to the composition. A possible objection to Ross’s approach: By so often effacing distance, he seems to assume that his subjects’ stories are his own.
But then, he has a different relationship than Evans did with his cast of characters. Ross, an African American from the North, went south to live and work among semi-rural black people whose history is linked with, if distinct from, his own. A sense of this history is always lurking in Hale County, even though it, too, goes unmentioned, with one notable exception. One of the film’s principal subjects, Daniel Collins, who attended Selma University in nearby Dallas County throughout most of the filming, speaks at one point of having thought about attending a commemoration of the historic civil-rights march to Montgomery in 1965, but explains that basketball practice took precedence. It’s not that Daniel is unaware of the march and its importance. He just doesn’t see how marking the anniversary would advance his hoop dreams.
As Ross asks in another text, making a legal/photographic pun, “How do we not frame someone?” How do we, as observers, keep from boxing in a life that’s constrained enough as it is; or, to put it less delicately, how do we refrain from railroading yet another young black man? Ross’s answer with Daniel—and with the film’s other principal subject, the similarly young but far more family-oriented Quincy Bryant—is to get breathtakingly close and then back away; peer at their faces and then watch the landscape roll past a car’s window; compress five years of their lives into about a week of screen time (judging by the number of sunrises and sunsets), but concentrate so intently on the texture of their world that they seem to exist in an eternal present.
Some people might call Ross’s method immersive, but he’s as likely to pop you out of a situation as to invite you to soak in it. His narrative effects can be ironic, or heartbreaking. Of Quincy’s first son, a text says, “So soon, Kyrie is tall enough to reach the basket,” after which you get an overhead shot of a toy basketball hoop, with the little boy’s head brushing the net as he runs back and forth. Of Quincy’s second son, an infant, a text drily announces, without prelude, “Korbyn was buried in the early afternoon.” You abruptly look down into a red-clay grave.
Like most of the film’s images, that burial pit is richly memorable in itself and made disorienting by the adjacent shots. Ross edits to create atmosphere more than story, as when he cuts from a view of sweat plopping at Daniel’s feet to a picture of drops of rain on a pavement. Very often, as the image changes, so does the emotional tone. First a young man goofily proposes that he might safely view a solar eclipse through a Chick-fil-A waffle fry, and then the white curve of the sun pops onto a black screen, looking like a disembodied grin. But the emotion can change within a shot, too, as when a woman with a powerful voice begins to belt a hymn in the midst of a church service and then chokes up, managing to breathe only the odd line of music while the cries and shouts continue around her. Or beauty and sadness can combine in a single shot—for example, Ross’s picture of sunlight slanting like the fingers of God through a stand of trees, while also filtering through the smoke from a trash fire.
This is clearly not the magical realism that sold so many people, so unnecessarily, on Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 Beasts of the Southern Wild (to mention a notable recent foray into African-American life in today’s rural South). If anything, Ross is anti-magical, and certainly unsentimental; and yet, for all the critical acumen he shows in his probing, skeptical on-screen texts about the use of documentary images, he’s also big on epiphanies. The light that shines throughout Hale County This Morning, This Evening comes from more than all those sunrises and moonrises. It seems to illuminate Daniel, Quincy, their families, and their world from within.
“Time to go now,” an usher called into the theater as the credits ended and half a dozen of us remained in our seats. “Back to New York. It’s the same as when you left.” True enough; but we weren’t.