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Black life itself

An Academy Award-nominated documentary meditates on rural black America

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”

At a time of heightened racial bigotry and tension, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” works a bit like a cinematic Rorschach.

This hypnotic, free-flowing documentary about black life in rural Alabama takes an empirical posture rather than a journalistic one. Of the many feelings it provokes, it’s likely to spark whatever instinctive, latent perceptions or prejudices the viewer may hold.

A project five years in the making, 36-year-old novice filmmaker RaMell Ross—who moved to the southern “Black Belt” in 2009—saw his photography hobby evolve into filming. Through that transition, Ross was (as he states in the movie’s opening text) “using time to figure out how we’ve come to be seen.”

Inevitably then, despite Ross’s warm, domestic, communal Americana, how these black Alabamans “come to be seen” could elicit a wide range of impressions. “Impressions” is the key word here, as Ross completely eschews narrative for something wondrously impressionistic.

Part portrait, part collage, this isn’t the story of “Hale County.” Rather, it’s a collection of experiences. In one shot, people stand outside a mobile home as an ominous storm swirls overhead. The next shot is a close-up of a man getting his nose pierced, a tear exposing the moment of pain.

The film goes on like this—sporadic, yet elegant, and always with clear tonal purpose. Family, church, food, sports, music, school, and other life events are seen in standard docu-coverage, which is then mixed with colorful, enhanced photography and evocative time lapsing.

Ross gazes on simple moments as well, like a toddler running back-and-forth between points A and B in a toy-strewn living room, over and over and over again, while mom and dad stay glued to the TV. It’s cute, but it’s also—in its own elemental way—poignantly universal. So, too, are heartbreaking tragedies, tenderly observed.

To the extent residents speak directly to camera, which is rare, it’s not descriptive reportage. Instead, it’s people sharing their hopes and dreams and fears—common aspirations and angsts that transcend race or region.

Often in the movies—if not almost exclusively—rural Black America is defined in the context of the white Deep South and a persisting Confederate culture. Here it seldom is, and certainly not in a confrontational way, while crime, drugs, and violence are, refreshingly, entirely avoided.

Even so, from generational poverty and segregated neighborhoods to limited opportunities and the cycles those realities create—beginning with slavery and continuing through Jim Crow—the implications of racist legacies remain.

And to put a fine point on it: at exactly halfway through, Ross intercuts the image of an old plantation house with black-and-white archive footage of a man in black face, peaking from behind some bushes, as if to represent the ghosts that linger. It’s a haunting bit of poetry.

Anthropological in form yet philosophical as a piece, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” becomes more than just one fabric of Black America. It’s the whole tapestry.

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