Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a documentary version of experiential cinema.
Since I complain enough about the pervasive prevalence of the same old documentary aesthetics in an age of unparalleled access to, and proliferation of, the form, I feel obligated — in the name of positivity — to guide you to a revelatory entry in the genre, and flat-out one of my favorite movies of the year, period.
Most documentaries regurgitate tried, true, and increasingly-tired scripts, often in service of educating the viewer on historical events worthy of the camera’s spotlight, making their appeal almost intrinsic. But what about documentarians striving to cinematically conceive of, and convey, the present, without the convenient aid of such 20/20 hindsight?
Enter neophyte RaMell Ross, who directed, co-wrote, produced, shot, and edited Hale County This Morning, This Evening, his first feature-length that sets out to capture the present state of Alabama’s titular county. Opting against talking head interviews and archival footage — the usual recipes in documentaries’ ever-blander stews — he instead sets his remarkable sights on nothing more, and nothing less, than everyday life in 2018. Through precise framing that maximizes meaning and emotional effect, Ross weaves a rich tapestry through these literal slices of life.
Unlike most documentaries, he refuses to contextualize his images within a conventional plot, the common narrative connector; with only sparse, and sparsely-worded, title cards that read like lines of poetry (the title channels some of this style), we’re left to our own devices to deduce conclusions from his cinematic wanderings, with purpose, through time and space. Refusing to over-explain what he’s documenting, Ross lets his moving moving pictures do the talking and walking, a collage open to endless interpretation.
And yet, at least for many white viewers, our impressionable perspectives on other lifestyles, specifically black bodies like the ones here, have been defined for generations by white lenses, polluting our perception. In relation to these stock and damaging depictions, Ross reclaims and proclaims the narrative, abandoning its arbitrary structures. Disregarding fallback formulas, Ross and Hale County, specifically its residents, create their own language in tandem, like a poem that reveals macro truth from micro observations, delving into the profound in, of, and through the minute.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening implicitly and explicitly reconceptualizes how to document life, and what it means to do so; what more can you want from of a documentary?