In the future, once analog filmmaking is finally dead and buried, will we look back on the rise of Snapchat and Instagram as a pivotal moment in visual storytelling? The rapid-fire, three-second video onslaughts of life you get when you tap through a friend's "story" have pioneered a new kind of visual language, one that strips away storytelling conventions like setup and narration, leaving behind only the purest sensory glaze on the larger framework of a music festival or a protest march. Still photography is used to this concept, but filmmaking rarely allows the discipline for it: an entire narrative in a single moment, and an ocean of depth in many moments strung together.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, the feature film debut of photographer and sociologist RaMell Ross, is an effort to elevate such morsels to the level of cinematic grandeur. Set in a rural Alabama community populated mostly by poor black residents, the Sundance winner chops and screws little moments in the lives of its subjects Daniel and Quincy, young men who are struggling to make the most of their lots in life. Daniel is playing basketball at the local historically black bible school Selma University, with dreams of going pro; Quincy is supporting a family with his partner Boosie, who has one child with him and is pregnant with twins. Ross's camera captures the banal, the tragic and the triumphant alike, never lingering on any one moment for too long, and using a dreamy editing technique that doesn't always spell out its associations for us.
The film implies, via the occasional onscreen text, that Ross's interests aren't so much with Daniel and Quincy's lives as they are with the ways his audience might care to watch them. He's interrogating how we view his heroes when we are devoid of any context except for the same imagery of black men in their element that other media sources tend to distort and mock: stuff like dancing in a parking lot, roughhousing in a locker room, and feeding a family with drive-in fast food. To Ross, who lived in Hale County for several years while teaching a GED class, these moments give you everything you need to understand his subjects.
That kind of self-proclaimed reinvention of our visual language is certainly ambitious for a first-time filmmaker. It's also frustrating, because this is an academic exercise centered around flesh-and-blood people, and any good-faith efforts to connect with Daniel and Quincy over the course of 72 brief minutes are continually thwarted by Ross's distancing techniques. "How do we not frame someone?" reads one interstitial immediately after we've met Quincy for the first time. We might ask: How can we answer that question when we're still trying to get our bearings on who someone is? But of course that's Ross's point: No matter how much information he gives us, only we can decide what we think of the people we see onscreen. And the less information we have, the more we have to go on our intuition, and the more we'll start to question what that intuition tells us (or doesn't tell us) about people who look like Daniel and Quincy.
Ross doesn't explicitly cite social media as an influence. In interviews and press notes he instead talks about wanting to make a black version of experimental epics like The Tree of Life; of responding to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee and Walker Evans' landmark report on poor white sharecroppers in Hale County in the 1930s; and of reclaiming the visual meaning of a poor black body from white media's racist stereotypes. Hale County is located square in the Black Belt of the Deep South, former plantation country that our social infrastructure largely abandoned after the Civil War, leaving the newly freed blacks in poverty and disenfranchisement. ("What happens when all the cotton is picked?" another title card asks.) Ross's fascination with the Black Belt's new reality informs some of his more daring flourishes, as when his camera approaches a finely manicured home while cross-cutting with a blackface actor from 1913's Lime Kiln Club Field Day, thought to be the oldest surviving film with an African-American cast.We can guess what that house was once used for.
But it also seems telling that many of Ross's edits involve the sort of visual repetition that would've been right at home on Vine: a toddler sprinting from one end of a room to the other and back again; a looped cheerleader routine of stomping, clapping and body-swaying. Reduced to their barest form, these moments stay with us not because they are particularly revealing (how much did you learn about a stranger by watching their Vines, really?), but because they create a kind of abstract expression of place and time. We know where we are, and what's happening in this instant, and we have to choose whether to figure the rest of it out.
There's a deep paradox in this form of storytelling, which assumes familiarity without ever laying the groundwork for it. Hale County will almost assuredly annoy some audiences for this reason. And yet because Ross has spent so much time with his subjects, and because his camera has such intimate, unforced access to their lives, we do feel at least a little familiar, and the news of a sudden tragedy demonstrates how much we've grown to care about them. It turns out that lives are still valuable even when you have to fill in the blanks yourself.