Documentary film “Hale Country This Morning, This Evening”, which won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year and then got nominated for Best Documentary Oscar early in this year, is a mesmerizing experience which is not so easy to describe here in this review. As firmly sticking to its calm, austere approach, the documentary attempts to immerse us in the specific mood and details of the mundane daily life in one rural African American neighborhood, and the result is hauntingly poetic to say the least.
As stated at the beginning of the documentary, director/writer/editor RaMell Ross, who also worked as a co-producer of the documentary, came to begin his day-to-day filming after he moved to Hale County, Alabama in 2009 for teaching photography and coaching basketful. While shooting around 1,300 hours of footage during next several years, he explored and examined how he and many other African Americans are regarded by their society, and that was eventually distilled to a film of less than 80 minutes.
While it does not seem to be driven much by any particular narrative, the documentary gradually generates the sense of time, places, and people via a series of seemingly random moments which will induce some active thoughts and feelings from you. At the beginning, the camera smoothly moves along a wide street for a while, and we become a bit curious about people and places glimpsed during this long-take scene. When the camera calmly looks at a wide landscape shown through the window of a moving vehicle, we get baffled at first as nothing seems to be happening on the screen, but the documentary somehow grabs more attention from us as we come to sense more of the flow of time and space than before.
We soon encounter two different African American lads who eventually become the human center of the documentary. When we see Quincy Bryant for the first time, we get a brief amusing moment as observing a little tear shed by him after his nose piercing is done, and he later talks to the camera a bit about how he has struggled to get better despite his poor economic circumstance. He has been living with his girlfriend Latrenda “Boosie” Ash and their little daughter in their modest residence, and he is determined to be a good father and husband to them besides finishing his education course.
In case of Daniel Collins, things relatively look a little better. He is an athlete with some potential, so he is allowed to study and play basketball in the Selma University, but he constantly reminds himself of how much he will have to try hard for his future, and there is a memorable scene where the camera closely and intensely follows his practice in the college gym.
Now it may look like to you that the documentary is going to follow the ups and downs in the ongoing life of these two young men, but, no, it keeps maintaining its low-key attitude as usual while casually flowing across time and space without any explanation or narration except several intertitles and statements. For example, we do not get to know much about the hardships in Quincy and Boosie’s daily life, and the documentary simply throws a rather funny statement at one point after looking at Boosie for a while. We sometimes observe Daniel interacting with his coach or his team players, but the documentary does now show us much about how well he has been doing in the team.
Nonetheless, the documentary is turned into something quite absorbing than expected as steadily providing lyrically sublime moments and making its subtle points from time to time. During one certain part involved with a big plantation house, the sight of the plantation house and its surrounding area is intercut with the clip from an old silent film featuring a performer in blackface makeup, and what is conveyed through this intriguing moment later resonates with a subsequent part associated with the frequent police brutality against young African Americans in US at present.
Although it is nearly devoid of dramatic narrative, the documentary is packed with life to behold. When the Quincy and Boosie’s daughter dances around in their residence, the camera simply follows her movements, but her little joy of dancing becomes more palpable in the process, and you may smile as appreciating her plucky spirit. When the camera phlegmatically looks at Daniel and his team players spending some time in their locker room, the casual interactions among them do not look particularly interesting, but then you may find yourself feeling like being in the middle of the situation with some occasional amusement. When something quite devastating later happens to Quincy and Boosie, Ross wisely puts some distance between the camera and his human subjects, and I admire how he presents this sorrowful moment with respect and restraint as never overlooking the sense of devastation around them.
Overall, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” distinguishes itself with its superb poetic qualities while also powerfully working as a meditative slice of African American life. Although it definitely demands some patience right from the beginning, it is still worthwhile to watch for those haunting visual moments, and I assure you that you will not be disappointed if you look for something different from those conventional documentaries out there.