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Location, location, location. For a documentary preoccupied with poetic, provocative associations, there’s perhaps none more stimulating than the setting of RaMell Ross’ nonfiction feature debut. It was in Hale County, Alabama, after all, that photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee composed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), their famed text-and-image study of Great Depression-afflicted sharecroppers. There’s not a single close-up of an African-American face in any of Evans’ photos, though you do see a few in some of the wider shots (specifically an image of a barber/shoeshine shop). And Agee makes mention of the community a few times in the text, as in an aside about wardrobe differences between the races (in this aspect, Agee observes, “the negroes are much the richer”).
It’s too simplistic to say that Evans and Agee were willfully blind; they lived when they lived and saw what they saw. And as pointed out in the press kit for Hale County This Morning, This Evening (premiering in Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition section), the racial demographics of this Southern American district have shifted drastically between then and now. Nonetheless, there’s a degree to which Ross’ film — shot over five years and boasting the supremely talented Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a creative adviser — feels like an intended corrective or at least a complicating companion piece to Evans and Agee’s efforts. In an early scene in a church, the camera pans over the faces, young and old, of the primarily black congregation until it settles for a moment (just long enough to create some pointed dissonance) on a white worshipper. It turns an oppression engrained in American culture (the tyrannical fantasy that skin color is a fair quality by which to judge others) against itself. And it’s precisely because of its fleeting, offhanded quality that the moment hits as deeply as it does.
Release date: Jan 19, 2018
This is Ross’ method throughout Hale County — to capture and then assemble moments that seem as if they were all witnessed on the fly as opposed to contrived for effect, and let the finished product stand as both tapestry and testament. At its strongest, the film feels like kin to Kirsten Johnson’s great Cameraperson (2016), a free-associative nonfiction memoir comprised mostly of B-roll and personal footage. Though the subject here isn’t Ross himself (despite a few offscreen aural appearances) but an entire community that, in both micro- and macrocosmic senses, has remained historically unacknowledged and unseen.
Ross has a very strong grasp of the wide view, evidenced in a sequence in which he intercuts a drive to a plantation-style home with footage from Bahamian comic Bert Williams’ produced and abandoned silent comedy, Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913). The images from the past interact profoundly with those from the present. Even if you don’t know any of Williams’ history — that he was a highly successful vaudevillian who nonetheless endured the numerous dehumanizations of his era, such as having to darken his lighter black skin with cork so as to bring his onstage characters more in line with the racist status quo — Ross and his team of editors make you feel it to your bones purely by their expert juxtapositions.
When the film attempts to bring several of its subjects more to the fore, however, it stumbles some. Amid all the unstudied images of Hale County and its residents, Ross keeps returning to Daniel Collins, a student at the historically black Selma University, as well as to Quincy Bryant, a father and husband whose wife, Boosie, is about to have fraternal twins (and, in one of the more devastating passages, lose one of them to crib death). Strange to say that expanding on the details of a person’s life is a detriment. Yet in this context, the degree to which Daniel, Quincy and their immediate friends and families are focused on often hampers the movie’s poetic flow and dilutes the power of its themes. It’s as if a standard advocacy doc was inelegantly mashed together with a much more free-floating and expressive creation.
Yet even when Ross loses the elegiac thread, there are scenes of tremendous power, as when one of Quincy and Boosie’s children runs rampant — back and forth, back and forth, back and forth — through the living room of their house. As the sequence goes on, the initial cuteness of the act wears off, and we’re taken to a much more sobering headspace. Eventually, the toddler runs straight at the camera and blocks the lens for several long seconds. In the darkness, we’re left to contemplate what hurdles this child may face in a world that, more often than not, would erase rather than embrace them.
Production companies: Idiom Film, Louverture Films
Director-cinematographer-editor-writer: RaMell Ross
Executive producers: Danny Glover, Susan Rockefeller, Bertha Foundation, Laura Poitras, Charlotte Cook
Producers: RaMell Ross, Joslyn Barnes, Su Kim
Co-writer: Maya Krinsky
Edit team: Robb Moss, Joslyn Barnes, Maya Krinsky
Creative adviser: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Music: Alex Sommers, Scott Alario, Forest Kelley
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
North American sales: Cinetic Media
International sales: Doc & Film International
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