by Andres Solar
After being run through the Internet’s grotesque, churning, stainless-steel pigeonholing machine (see “framing” below), this highly sensitive documentary gets described as “a movie about how black people live in Hale County, Alabama.” Or, cringingly worse, simply a “black film.” It’s difficult to think of anything more frustrating and disappointing than efforts to segregate the arts. The truth is that this is a work about Black folks and it’s for everyone. It is the latter, or I don’t know what is.
Except in moments when he allows a child in a shot to play with the lens, or during a casual interview in a car, Hale County This Morning, This Evening cinematographer-editor-director RaMell Ross and his camera seem wholly invisible to the subjects, even in the closest closeups. Sometimes eerily so. As a member of the community in which he filmed—and as a basketball coach at nearby Selma University—Ross’s wide access is understandable. The height and depth of his access, as well as his uncanny photographer’s timing, though, speak to his considerable talents.
Those also include a remarkable, uncommon sense of space, a lyrical style of editing and, of course, an eye for images which he captures like a master painter. Though it could be called a photographer’s film or, more accurately, visual poetry & sound art, the kinetic energy and power of Hale County… ought not to be underestimated. It’s cinematic through and through.
Gently guiding you into a position of meditating observer, Ross eschews nearly all conventions of a documentary. He does employ a couple of established techniques of general film language, like the match cut and the L-cut for sound (when the sound from one scene carries over into the next one). Other than that, it’s a new way to see the world through cinema, and it could not be more effective. From this vantage point, we get to know the stoicism of the people, their moments of sheer joy and sorrow (explained and unexplained), and our own.
Early on, Ross poses a question via title card: “How do we not frame someone?” This, one might think, is counterintuitive for a cinematographer-director whose job it is, ordinarily, to think about how to frame everyone in his photocompositions. But Ross seems to have kept his question top of mind throughout shooting and editing. The idea being that, as an artist, when you “frame” someone, you might also frame them in the other sense of the word: set them up for something they didn’t do or, more often, make them out to be someone they’re not. In other documentaries about poor or middle-class people, the edges of the frames might show a ten-foot-high chainlink fence or some lousy housing. Here, notice exactly how the filmmaker goes about not framing, and how he finds deeper truths that way.
As with all great art, there’s a spirituality to Hale County This Morning, This Evening. It offers the finest, most immediate insights on a people and on being human. What’s more, it offers healing for the soul and for humanity. I’d like to think that a double feature of Hale County… and Moonlight (2016), screened for all 350 million people in America, could wipe out racism for good. If only, somehow, we could all rise up and experience that.
4 of 5 stars