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Hale County This Morning, This Evening quickly announces itself as a different type of documentary when an intertitle asks, “What is the orbit of our dreaming?” Indeed, RaMell Ross’ debut film speaks the language of a dream, with superficially unrelated scenes of an African-American community’s slices-of-life standing in where a traditional point-A-to-point-B narrative might be. The result is impressionistic, a look at daily triumphs and challenges that feels like reverie but couldn’t be more real.
Hale County is in rural Alabama, and the doc mimics a small town in which everybody knows everybody—and therefore you’re going to meet everybody. There’s really no focus here, but out of a mostly unidentified cast of characters, Ross introduces us to two young men: Quincy, a father who works at the catfish plant, and Daniel, a student. Both have dreams and strong work ethics. Quincy says that his motto is “don’t give up” and that “before I leave this earth, I want to fulfill all my goals and my dreams,” noting especially that he wants to make life better for his son. Daniel’s aim is getting into a good college where he can play basketball. He gets into Selma University, and a scene of him shooting (and making) several 3-pointers proves that he has the talent to make his mark.
Otherwise, though, the doc is random. There are scenes of cheerleaders, of worshippers at church, of a man playing most excellent blues guitar. Here’s a cop’s flashlight glaring right into the camera; here’s a literal deer in headlights afterward. There’s a shot of graveside mourners after a shocking death, the understated announcement of which is the most powerful punch the film offers. Curiously (though the whole of the doc is curious, really, in the best way), Ross shows the black, toxic smoke of a tire fire mixed with sunlight and intercut with a scene from the 1913 film Lime Kiln Club Field Day, with its star, Bert Williams, looking from behind trees as if at the fire. (The film is said to be the oldest featuring African-American actors.) Next is the intertitle, “What happens when all the cotton is picked?” The themes are big: birth, death, family, economics.
Nearly as frequent as scenes of people are scenes of nature. Ross is a cinematographer, and it shows; he also has a love of skies. There are shots of the stars, the moon, a sunrise, and clouds, often artfully framed, such as one image of a night sky with the camera looking upward through a basketball hoop.
To give the impression of gazing out a car window, there’s a lengthy shot of a landscape, its fields and trees whizzing by as sounds and bits of dialogue from other scenes play. At times, all this gets frustrating; having made the acquaintance of Quincy and Daniel (and Quincy’s adorable son, Kyrie), you want the doc to more traditionally follow them. But if you let the film’s lyrical rhythms and existential moments wash over you, you’ll feel the truths about their lives even if you don’t technically know them.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening screens Wednesday, Feb. 6 at the Avalon Theatre.