The nonstop interfacing of digital media with every expiring millisecond of day-to-day life pokes at some uncomfortable questions, especially when the philosophical dilemma of the personal device is turned away from our custom-curated social media timelines and back towards the outside world. How, as actively passive consumers of pixelated images, do we come to grips with the fact that we use them as stand-ins for vastly complicated socio-economic issues (if not for whole families, towns, communities, movements)?
When it comes to Black America, shorthanding on the big screen is nothing new: nary a frame of RaMell Ross’s new documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening passed without reminding me of artist-filmmaker-collagist Arthur Jafa’s assertion at the 2014 BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia, that any gaze mediated by a camera is an endemically white one. Hale County foregrounds the all-too-real poverty of its namesake (in midwestern Alabama) while shrugging off conventional festival-lab demand for easy lessons and digestible parables, focusing on two young men in particular: aspiring basketball player Daniel Collins, at Selma University, and Quincy Bryant, a young father whose girlfriend Latrenda (also known as Boosie) is pregnant with twins. The film preempts any expectations of objectivity with a few simple title cards at its outset, explaining that Ross moved there to coach basketball and teach photography, and that he subsequently began “using time to figure out how we’ve come to be seen.”
These intertitles will return periodically, demystifying the film's conceptual approach in a way that is casual, confident and, perhaps most critically, functional: “How do we not frame someone?” “Where does time reside?” “What happens when all the cotton is picked?” This doesn’t just make Hale County easier for audiences to decipher, it also allows the artist to get in front of the inevitable peanut gallery. After Hale County premiered at Sundance, Ross told the Los Angeles Times that by “fractioning Daniel and Quincy’s narratives, concentrating only on the beautiful, spontaneous moments, you don’t have a chance to judge them—aside from the way in which you would judge a black person because they’re black. Therefore, the way you respond to the film is you, it’s not the film.” This mode could be seen as an update to that of the the Flahertys and Rogosins of the 20th century, but it also finds its maker adamantly operating in the present—likely because he’s less of an interloper than the usual makers of poverty-centric docs (whether way back when or today). Exposing the technical means of his own shifting perspective, Ross doesn’t want to be seen as omnipotent eye but rather as a human being among others who just happens to be wielding a Canon 5D. Why shouldn’t that be enough?
Indeed, Hale County is a new kind of minimally invasive documentary, as much about the residents of its namesake as it is about Ross’s own shooting choices. It chronicles everyday life in an African-American community shorn of white fear, save for a few encounters with roadside police, scenes which are themselves rendered elliptical—wherein Ross’ unbroken handheld camera movements take on the severity of nauseating, perilous plot twists. The filmmaker’s expertise as basketball coach perhaps also grants Hale County an even more unique point of access: a lengthy shot follows Daniel shooting one lay-up after another in rapid succession, the camera rigidly hovering behind his back, registering almost like a real-life version of the boxing ring long take in Ryan Coogler’s Creed. This motif is neither repeated nor returned to nor abandoned altogether—it’s just one of many devices Ross deploys in negotiating his subject matter. Other approaches come and go, including slow-motion, time-lapse, dashboard-cam, superimposition, and the dissociation of sound and image. In one sequence, Ross visits a trash fire and captures the ethereal beauty of clouded sunlight through the smoky haze, explaining his interest in the effect to an older man nearby, who chuckles: “I wondered what the hell you were doing!”
Ross’s own background as a photographer (including a series of stills from Hale and other nearby counties) is consistent with the camerawork that makes up Hale County: many scenes begin as languid, static compositions only to become breathing, moving portraits. But while a good half of the documentary takes place in what the first intertitle referred to as “the discovering,” it’s crucial to zero in on the instances when Ross deviates from the film’s otherwise poetic, hands-off approach. (Besides: there are only so many synonyms for “intimate” or “quotidian” a critic can use.) One interjection of archival footage from 1913 features Bert Williams, the Bahamian actor who artificially darkened his skin and made a name for himself playing a bug-eyed, slow-witted stereotype, harkening back to the wealth of racist depictions that comprised available images of black life in the early 20th century. (By pairing these frames with the neighborhood’s swampy, ambient sound texture, Ross simultaneously questions both history and its record.)
Later, an awful tragedy kicks the film’s montage into gear, and suddenly the film becomes much easier to place in the context of genre: it’s a panorama around town, an exhilarating hymn to the resilience of Quincy and Daniel’s impoverished community, complete with music from Parachutes, an alt-rock group whose early-2000s heyday saw them working with Sigur Rós and Julianna Barwick. Relative to Ross’s approach elsewhere in the film, this is a more classical and yet far riskier route by which to exit: months have passed, life has gone on, and in a matter of minutes, this viewer was made all too aware of both the danger (and privilege) of having taken even a fleeting moment for granted.