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18th of November 2018

Movies



Review: A Multiplicity of Moments in Under 80 Minutes in ‘Hale County’

The Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky famously defined the work of a filmmaker as “sculpting in time.” In his book of that title, Tarkovsky elaborated that the filmmaker, starting with “an enormous, solid cluster of living facts,” ought to discard what is not needed and keep only what is “integral to the cinematic image.”

For the director RaMell Ross’s first feature, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” he has carved a film of less than 80 minutes out of 1,300 hours of footage shot over several years. The particularity and power of the larger cinematic image he has created through a multiplicity of moments are impossible to adequately describe in critical prose.

VideoA preview of the film.Published OnSept. 4, 2018

The movie is both a narrative of real lives and an inquiry. Text that appears onscreen early on states that the filmmaker (who also has cinematography, editing, writing and producing credits) wanted to “figure out how we came to be seen.” The “we” being African-Americans.

Hale County, Ala., is where Walker Evans documented in photographs the lives of white sharecroppers in the Depression era; Evans, with the writer James Agee, created the still-moving book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Mr. Ross shows a different disenfranchised community, homing in on three individuals: Daniel and Quincy, high school ballplayers, one of whom makes his way to college, and Boosie, the mother of Quincy’s children. Mr. Ross, who’s also a photographer, met his subjects while working as a teacher and basketball coach in the county of the movie’s title.

The challenges these young people face here are not documented by means of dramatic situations or confrontations. Sometimes one of the subjects will address the camera, speaking of hopes and fears; other times they’ll just go about their business, quietly. At one point a title card drolly reads “Carrying twins now, Boosie careth not about the film.” The twins are delivered, in a scene as low-key as anything else in the movie. When tragedy strikes, Mr. Ross retains a patient and focused eye. His camera’s gaze has a quality of reserve, one that insistently imparts respect to his subjects.

ImageDaniel Collins, a basketball player and one of the film's main subjects.CreditRaMell Ross/Cinema GuildImageQuincy Bryant, one of two basketball players featured in the film.CreditRaMell Ross/Cinema Guild

The reason this seems to be crucial to him is conveyed in a scene in which his camera tracks up a dirt road, approaching what looks like a plantation mansion. Mr. Ross intercuts the camera’s progress with black-and-white shots of the black vaudevillian Bert Williams, who frequently performed in blackface. Looking at something off screen, Williams appears to be admiring the mansion. The effect is bitter, trenchant. Mr. Ross moves on from this observation as if shaking himself off from a bad mood or dream. In the yard, a laborer is burning old tires, and Mr. Ross is compelled to shoot the smoke as it travels past the treetops and is pierced by sunlight.

The filmmaker’s poetic logic is inextricable from his consciousness of race and community, and of his function and potential as an artist grappling with his own circumstances and those of the people he’s depicting. “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” is not a long film, but it contains whole worlds.

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