A nose getting pierced. A baby’s softly rounded belly. A plume of smoke lingering up into the sky. These are just a few of the unexpectedly compelling images RaMell Ross presents in his assured directorial debut, Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Set in a rural area of Alabama and loosely following the lives of two young men, Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, this documentary eschews narrative convention in favor of an impressionistic, scrapbook-like style. Ross has a generous approach: Daniel and Quincy aren’t talking heads, but just men living their lives. A scene of Quincy’s adorable young son running back and forth across the living room would likely be cut by most directors. The energetic imp runs around and around and around, to the point where it might test our patience. But Ross insists on capturing him, even letting him come all the way up to the camera, effectively blurring the shot.
Even with such unexpectedly lengthy passages, Hale County This Morning, This Evening runs a mere 78 minutes. Ross captures an impressive scope of events in such a short amount of time. There’s birth and unspeakably tragic death, church services and dance squads, and everything seems to be of equal weight. The film touches on complex issues that would take far longer than 78 minutes to fully untangle. There’s nary a white person onscreen, and Ross’s portrait of blackness is free of moralizing, of trying to make a conversation about How We Live Now or, God forbid, the Trump era. Simply (or perhaps, given decades of cinematic failings when it comes to diversity, not so simply) showing the people of Hale County ends up being far more elucidating than any old think piece.
That’s not to say that the film is entirely free of exposition. There are occasional intertitles, featuring such philosophical inquires as “What is the orbit of our dreaming?” and “Where does time reside?” in white text against a black background. While the film does veer into dreamlike territory and raise questions about temporality, these intertitles seem a bit like a crutch. They’re the closest thing here to documentary convention. Ross does seem aware of this tension: One of the quotes asks, “How do we not frame someone?” It’s a valid question, and these koans provide their own type of framing. When the imagery is as strong as it is here, such questions are border on redundancy. Ross finds beauty in the mundane, and wields the occasionally showy technique (such as time lapse photography) skillfully. The nighttime photography, showing stark, mysterious trees, is reminiscent of Twin Peaks, with uncanny lighting. Ross’s camera often hovers at unexpected angles, making us into flies on the wall. We see sweat dripping onto the ground as a basketball player dribbles. Such a shot has an unexpected intimacy. Sweat isn’t typically meant to be seen, and the shot emphasizes it to the point of artistic abstraction. The image then cuts to falling rain, in a sly bit of visual humor. The film is mostly serious, but there are some funny moments, as when the baby runs across the room, or later on when a man stands on a horse, with no explanation at all.
Some of the shots, featuring sprawling landscapes, mirror the feeling of looking out of a car window on a lazy day. Wide open space contrasts with the intimacy of church scenes. Watching the documentary occasionally feels like trespassing. At the church, we’re placed in the middle of a service and even a non-believer can sense that something powerful is happening. When a baby dies, we see fragments of tragedy, but the film doesn’t pivot to suddenly being about tragedy. It can be hard to get a real foothold on Hale County This Morning, This Evening—it’s a film where everything and nothing happens, and its views on race and class aren’t presented tidily. Ultimately, the broad scope is what gives it power, and by showing a side of the South we don’t often see, it puts to rest many classist misconceptions. It’s a travelogue, a coming-of-age story, and a mystery all at once, and while one might sense that there’s room for any number of more conventional documentaries to be generated from the seeds of plot within, Ross has given us something valuable: A portrait of a small, overlooked section of America, presented without judgment.