Hale County This Morning, This Evening Review
Since making its debut at last year’s Sundance, director RaMell Ross’ documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening has been collecting praise and awards almost everywhere it has played. It currently sits on the Oscar shortlist with hopes of securing a nomination when the announcements are made early next week. The film is an intimate, yet at times elusive, portrait of the lives of two young black men in Hale County, Alabama, that doesn’t follow a traditional narrative arc, while also avoiding the beats of a standard character study.
In many ways, the documentary offers a depiction of not only the two men, but also the wider community around them. Using only a small DSLR camera, Ross remains observant of small moments and interactions between family members and friends, from young toddlers through to the elder members in the town. Ross’ lyrical approach will not be an easy fit for those used to more standardised documentaries, but for those willing to invest their time it does offer some pleasing rewards.
Early on we are introduced to a young working father called Quincy, and Daniel, a college basketball player at Selma University. Any further context about their lives is scarce and Ross employs a poetical style that offers glimpses of their lives and environment. The fragmented nature of the images mean you are never sure what is coming next, leaving it up to us to piece it together as a whole. Similarly, while the main theme is of black life in today’s Deep South, there will no doubt be multiple readings each viewer will be able to take away.
Ross is an experienced photographer and it shows in much of the imagery he captures. We see examples such as shadows on the gym wall being sped up during practice and witness a huge storm forming over a home that would barely struggle to contain it. Later we visit a grand, old plantation house where the camera captures smoke from burning wood raising up into the trees before being pierced by sunlight. Throughout the film there are a number of title cards that pose ambiguous questions, and immediately after this image one appears asking, “What happens when all the cotton is picked?” It points towards the disenfranchisement and poverty in an area abused by slave owners who leached the land using black hands before leaving them to live with the aftermath.
There are shades of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life to the film's elegiac form. It offers some insight into life, death, nature and history for the faces and places we are shown on screen. There is a loose rhythm that is easier to find once you stop searching for a fixed through line, and instead allow yourself to become immersed in the imagery and feelings they evoke in the moment. Yet, without that information provided upfront, there is some initial distance to overcome which means Hale County This Morning, This Evening probably requires more than one viewing to really find a way into its heart.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening opens in select UK cinemas on Friday 18th January.