Whose child is this?
Photographer RaMell Ross‘ feature debut Hale County This Morning, This Evening presents itself as an emotively academic endeavor that looks into the lives of two Black men in Alabama, projecting them through their humanity rather than simply race. The latter plays a large role too, but on a contextual level feeding into their environment and the choices they’re given to alter it. But there are no verbal set-ups, questions to unearth, or truths to be told beyond life itself and the glorious highs and lows it provides. So Ross documents candid conversations rather than interviews with concrete goals of coaxing specific answers to reinforce a thesis. He shares his unique experience with this place and its people, one only his friendships and their trust in him could capture.
The result is a five-year visual poem—or song as Ross describes it in the press notes—edited together as though it’s been two weeks with daytime changing to night so the sun can rise again. There are as many long-take and time-lapse moments of trees or basketball hoops as toddlers running around aimlessly, expending energy in a desperate bid to be seen. We watch Daniel Collins shooting three-pointers with the camera practically attached to his back like Ross is shadowing his moves in order to mimic his technique. And there’s Quincy Bryant playing with his son Kyrie and joking with his partner Latrenda ‘Boosie’ Ash before, during, and after her pregnancy with twins. Rhyme and reason becomes astutely replaced by intrigue, visual complement, and dramatic tonal shifts.
It’s montage as scrapbook saying as much about Ross as the events he films since he (and co-writer Maya Krinsky) chose these scenes from more than 1300 hours of footage. This is the snapshot he wishes to compile with curated humor, stress, miracle, and death. He presents facts as asides (how everyone works at the catfish plant, how sports can be a way out, and how dinners consist of fast food), visible yet never overwhelming so their tragic and systemic influence doesn’t diminish the love shared despite it all. And those quick glimpses of police officers after being pulled over? They hold weight because of an unavoidable public consciousness of the act’s nightmarish possibilities despite Ross intentionally editing out the circumstances leading to those encounters—fault left to the imagination.
This is both the film’s strongest attribute and its most frustrating. Because no matter how beautiful the imagery proves with a carefully married sensory symphony of sight and sound, the meandering progression is almost too fluid to truly grab hold. I found myself fighting the urge to dismiss the whole as an effective composite of art school experimentations and happy accidents as transitory interludes between slice of life moments on the path towards adulthood. It would be easy to say Ross simply found those vignettes with an impactful punch and pieced them together with abstractly pithy interstitials to set a mood in lieu of plot. It’s easy because that’s exactly what he did. We can’t, though, because he did it with intent. That’s a truth we can’t ignore.
So we find ways to see between the frames. Maybe we don’t quite recognize the visual semantics or philosophical dissections at play without reading some kind of artist statement drafted by Ross to provide his intent beyond pure aesthetics, but we do see something. Look at the brief instance of Bert Williams arriving onscreen courtesy of archival footage—a Black actor in blackface peering through the trees at what’s unfolding. It’s a singularly odd interjection and as such forces us to give it meaning regardless of whether we know what Ross’ thought process was. We see the layers of blackness and the mask the Black community must wear as a means to disarm a nation that fears them. We see the perpetual need to perform rather than exist.
And that’s what Hale County seeks to subvert. Its instances of joy aren’t performative, its anguish not exploitative. Rather than watch Black men and women used to service an agenda, Ross reveals an authenticity devoid of strings and ultimately how those agendas are present without any extra augmentation. The finished work is more akin to home movie than politically driven exposé, its desire to give its subjects a voice over a platform enough to force viewers to relate to their ups, downs, and everything in-between. Ross doesn’t preach or tug at heartstrings. He doesn’t tell us these characters deserve success or show whether they achieve it. He’s merely letting them live, immortalizing their potential for hope amidst uncontrollably dire circumstances. He’s making sure their humanity isn’t forgotten.
 Storm from Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Copyright IDIOM Film, Courtesy RaMell Ross & Cinema Guild
 Barbershop from Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Copyright IDIOM Film, Courtesy RaMell Ross & Cinema Guild
 Willie on a Horse from Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Copyright IDIOM Film, Courtesy RaMell Ross & Cinema Guild