Film Review: Hale County This Morning, This Evening

This impressionistic debut film from African-American photographer RaMell Ross provides striking images, although not a command of the medium that would result in a definitive portrait of its subjects.
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Ra Mell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening ends with Billie Holiday’s “Stars Fell on Alabama,” a jazz standard about love in the wake of an unusual meteor shower. A counterintuitive sound cut, it nevertheless best explains the filmmaker’s purpose. Like the song, Ross’ portrait of the largely African-American Hale County, Alabama, relies on vivid impressions—droplets of sweat forming on the floor of a basketball court, from the body of a young man the camera elides, cuts to raindrops staining a cement slab. Next is a wide shot of two men defying the roiling winds of a summer monsoon. The leitmotif is pulled from some memory that remains from Ross’ time as a basketball coach in Hale County.

Ross is an African-American photographer, and while his debut film alludes to the past, most obviously to Walker Evans’ images of the same Alabama county during the Great Depression, his leitmotifs are timeless depictions of African-American life, beginning with Sunday church. Among the worshipers is one white woman, perhaps a reference to the minority population in the county, or a reminder of past racial tensions, resolved or not. Greensboro, the county seat, was the sight of the first Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights Era. Mostly, Ross is preoccupied with basketball, and Daniel, an aspiring college player. Women are sidelined as mothers, grandmothers and church singers. 

Hale County, filmed over five years, begins as an effective tone poem, but Ross muddles the documentary with attempts at characterization and narrative. Daniel and another young man, Quincy, are introduced 10 minutes into the film, along with Boosie, Quincy’s wife, and Kyrie, their daughter. Ross’ impressionistic style makes little sense of their lives. In one disturbing sequence of Kyrie’s incessant running, Ross lingers on the toddler’s obvious developmental problems, and then fails to resolve that narrative thread. Three-quarters of the way through the film, Kyrie’s grandmother does comment on the fact that she may need “special classes,” but the parents seem not to notice, and Boosie goes on to have twins. Except for an intertitle that states she is pregnant and wants nothing to do with filming—an understandable circumstance—Boosie’s relative detachment in the film, contrasted to Ross’ depiction of Quincy as the attentive father, appears to single her out for criticism.

Intertitles such as “How do we frame someone?” and “What happens when all the cotton is picked?” are not apparently linked to the images that follow. They actually interrupt the flow of Ross’ already abstruse interconnections. Another challenge is the framing of some events, like a stop-and-frisk, which is limited to a POV shot through a car window, or a group of rowdy young men outside at night to a flash of light in which they appear; each is an eloquent still, filled with portent because this is rural Alabama, second only to Mississippi in its sanguinary Jim Crow-era history. Subjected to the less static medium of film, and Ross’ frequent shifts between seemingly unrelated impressions, the images and the sensibilities they represent are too fleeting.

The longest sequence in the film, aside from Kyrie running, is in a locker room, depicted in static, medium long shot, and features Daniel’s basketball team. They are a jittery lot, maybe in anticipation of a game. Ross layers the scene with annoyingly percussive music, intensifying the emotion rather than trusting the still camera that allows the viewer’s eye to wander and pick out the individual personalities that occupy that room. By this point in the film, one wonders why Ross did not just give in and make a movie about black men and basketball. He played college ball, but injuries prevented him from pursuing it as a career; photography was a later preoccupation.

Basketball does not belong to Alabama, but it has deep roots in African-American culture. Ross’ preoccupation with it in Hale County refers to historical memory: In the early 1900s, when it was believed that blacks had no talent for professional sports, an African-American physical education teacher in a segregated Washington, D.C. high school introduced basketball to his students. Edwin Bancroft Hendersen’s efforts led to the Black Fives Era, or to the dominance of African-Americans in the sport until the formation of the integrated National Basketball Association in 1950. Dr. Henderson and his wife, Mary Ellen Meriwether, also an educator, fought Jim Crow-era segregation of sports facilities, and helped to establish the NAACP’s first Virginia chapter.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening is too artsy and, at times, downright tedious to attract general audiences; sequences of a solar eclipse, and Ross’ contemplation of ruined basketball hoops, including Kyrie’s play hoop, in God shot, are affected and stagnant. Ross’ achievement lies in his unique form of cinematic memoir that holds the promise of a new, singular voice, although a disingenuous note is struck in his representation of African-American family life—all of Ross’ female subjects shoulder some amorphous blame in the film, while the men are lionized. It also remains to be seen whether he can master the ways in which the cinematic art form, distinct from photography, relies on the creation of meaning through a series of interrelated images and sound, rather than the single painterly image. In this respect, Ross’ debut is scattershot, and lacking in the consistent purpose that articulates a filmmaker’s intent.