Filmmaker RaMell Ross moved to rural Alabama in 2009 to teach photography and coach basketball. He brought his camera, documenting the ordinary lives of the mostly African-American residents of the county.
After several years of filming, he distilled over 1,200 hours of of footage into “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” a poetic 80-minute film that eloquently captures these modern Southerners. He doesn’t force their lives into a convenient narrative, he doesn’t chase the most dramatic moments, he doesn’t use their lives to make broader sociological points. Instead, he just sees them, as they are, and invites us to see them too.
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the final film in its Fall 2018 Spotlight Cinema series. The screening is free for museum members, $7 for all others.
At the heart of the film is two African-American teenagers, Quincy Brian and Daniel Collins. Their paths diverge over the course of the film. Quincy is a basketball star who goes to Selma University, while Daniel drops out of high school to take care of his infant son.
Ross tells their story through a collage of impressionistic images, snippets of conversation, and slivers of ordinary life. Sometimes the images rhyme, like a shot of giggling teenage boys being sprayed by a garden hose followed by a shot of a toddler girl solemnly lathering up in the bath.
But the connections are often more elliptical. I’m not sure what prompted Ross to combine the image of the countryside, shot out the window of a moving car, with the sounds of a high school basketball game, but the combination is evocative. The compositions are often quite stunning, and at times watching “Hale County” feels like paging through a book of photographs.
Ross' camera finds beauty in the strangest places. The most memorable image in the film is the stunningly beautiful shot of sunlight peeking through the smoke of a tire fire. That image may serve as Ross’ thesis statement, that there is beauty and dignity to be found in this forgotten, downtrodden community and its people.
Ross occasionally makes historical parallels to the old South. He edits in black-and-white footage of a performer in blackface looking approvingly at that tire fire. But for the most part, Ross resists making statements.
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” is more influenced by Frederic Wiseman (“At Berkeley”) than Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”). Both approaches to documentary filmmaking are equally valid, but we don’t get enough films about African-American life made by the people who live there. “We need more black folk taking pictures around here,” somebody says in the film. Hear hear.