Narrative is often the conduit for racist ideology, particularly in a Hollywood that favours ‘feel good’ narratives of black life; avoiding it altogether reads, then, like a protest
US photographer RaMell Ross’s debut film Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), which was nominated for Best Documentary Feature for the 2019 Academy Awards, makes of its titular Alabama county a kaleidoscopic subject. This is the same town Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hid following an assassination attempt by the KKK, only two weeks before he was killed on 4 April 1968. It is a town so embedded in the racist history of the southern United States, with its legacy of chattel slavery, indentured servitude and Jim Crow, that it would seem nearly impossible to fully bring to life the vast sweep of both the present and the past in moving images.
But Ross manages to do just that through his use of a non-narrative, non-fictional approach to Alabama. In Hale County, the county is not only a landscape, but a vast territory of interpretation, feeling, individual subjectivity, community and history. A couple struggles with childcare. Scenes on the college basketball court show sweat-drenched black bodies playing in the turning afternoon light. Old women joke with one another in scruffy yards. We see other, more abstract scenes of insects, plant life, smoke lingering in trees against a lowering sun. Narrative is often the conduit for racist ideology, particularly in a Hollywood that favours white-washed or ‘feel good’ narratives of black life; avoiding it altogether reads, then, like a protest. And this protest forces the viewer to develop – and project – their own ideas onto the world of Hale County.
In making the film, Ross paired down 1,300 hours of footage recorded over five years to document two protagonists, Daniel and Quincy. They are both aspiring basketball players hoping to turn their passion into a vehicle that drives them out of the ghetto. One has a child, the other goes to college in pursuit of a career in basketball. We follow their paths in a roundabout way. And through them, Ross scrutinizes the broader concepts of men and nature, which he seems to view as somewhat circular, one leading to and from the other. This theme is explored in mundane moments – a new-born celebrates his ability to run in a circle for 10 minutes – that expand into a recurring motif throughout. Men run circles on the court, a bee circumnavigates a porch. Ross lingers over these images, often for what seems an undue amount of time, but these rhythmic juxtapositions appear to be essential to the life of the town. It is a life where the banal and the inanimate, light and darkness orbit each other, sometimes closely, sometimes distantly. Sometimes, these elements clash, with little remorse for the comforts of the viewer. A baby dies from sudden infant death syndrome, only for the scene to jump-cut to the emptiness of the outdoors.
I was born in the South. This clash, as Ross seems to know, is its primary condition.
Main image: RaMell Ross, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Cinema Guild