by Tayler Montague
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Dir. RaMell Ross, U.S., Cinema Guild
RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening liberates itself from the Western tradition of linear storytelling. Employing nonlinear editing, as opposed to long takes, to get closer to its subjects, Ross’s film finds its voice in a kind of Black art film tradition that tends to exist in galleries and institutions, or referenced in the work of Fred Moten. Ross seems to be building upon a foundation laid down by Black filmmakers before him, calling to mind the work of the L.A. Rebellion. Ben Caldwell, a member of that group, once said, “I’ve noticed that a lot of subliminal images were threaded throughout films in the history of filmmaking, and all those things were to the demise of my culture. So I felt we had to work against that kind of symbology and we had to change the ritual. So that’s why I ended up on that road of really seeing filmmaking as a way of emancipating the image.” Emancipating the image feels like a goal in Hale County, which loosely follows the lives of Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, ballplayers who are simply living and striving and working.
In Ross’s film, the mundane is beautiful: moving furniture into an apartment, slapboxing in parking lots, and playing in the lush greenery of the Alabama county of the title. Each frame allows for some greater meaning. A long take of Kyrie, the young son of one of the film’s protagonists, running back and forth can also read as a statement on how systems can entrap us and how we’re stuck within the social and financial classes we’re born into, especially within the Black American South. Daniel and Quincy are young men with aspirations beyond Hale County’s city limits. Whether through rapping or hooping, they want to transcend the expectations of life there. Daniel’s mother and Quincy both work at a catfish factory near town. Quincy’s music and ball ambitions take a backseat to the responsibilities of raising his children Kyrie and Karmyn. The film refuses to present the situation as pitiful; it just is.
Most of the dazzling moments come from how Ross captures men playing basketball. It’s in the editing—match-cutting, and allowing moments to linger—that the magic is created, employing art house techniques seen in films like Kahlil Joseph’s Until the Quiet Comes and the work of Apitchapong Weerasethakul (credited as a consultant here). A celebratory dance after a scored point becomes poetic by being slowed down, allowing the viewer to revel in the few moments Daniel can break free from the world. Sweat dripping on the pavement during practice transforms into big, full raindrops hitting the sidewalk, moving us seamlessly between two spaces.
Hale County shines brightest when the feelings of anguish or joy are made plain. It could be a long-form music video for Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Joy and Pain,” a Black southern cookout staple. As a kid with grass stains on her knees from playing with my cousins in Middle of Nowhere, VA, I identified with the younger children onscreen; staring down acres of land, indulging in my own boredom-fueled curiosity, looking to make my own fun; the carelessness of childhood acted as a protective shield against the glass-half-empty distress felt by my elders. In one scene, we see only the silhouette of a woman as she discusses, hands raised to the sky, that she’s there to save the youth of Hale County from themselves and the senseless killings running rampant among them. In another, people seek salvation at the pulpit, crying, tired from the frustrations of day-to-day life, breaking down traumas and refueling on the hope and spiritual guidance necessary to see oneself through to a better day.
Throughout, Ross employs onscreen text, which can be used to demystify the images that follow. However, at one point during the film, we’re confronted with a piece of archival footage: Bert Williams looking directly at us in blackface, a moment that felt a bit contrived. I’m aware that the placement of that clip is meant to be unexpected, a tool to challenge the audience; the director has noted that the scene is intended to remind us of the origins of Black representation in cinema. For me, a Black viewer, the moment felt unnecessary. But then it dawned on me: maybe I wasn’t necessarily the audience for that particular scene.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening is political in that it’s pushing up against the historically unjust depictions of Black Americans, but so have the works of Black filmmakers since Oscar Micheaux first picked up a camera. Yes, this is a film that humanizes its subjects (who are Black), and Ross lends a delicacy to the depiction of its setting. But if humanization is still the only marker of a successful positive depiction, then perhaps it’s time to move the goalpost. A film seeking to create a visual language for capturing the intricacies of Black (male) existence, accomplished through a careful curation of images, Hale County does feel like a start in this direction.
This review originally appeared as part of Montague's True/False Festival 2018 report.