Hale County is a mostly rural district in central Alabama. With fewer than 15,000 residents, it's the kind of place where the only excitement comes from local high school or college athletics.
At the beginning of his essay/documentary/collage Hale County This Morning, This Evening, sociologist and photographer RaMell Ross announces via title card that he came to the region to teach photography and coach basketball at a local college. (Although Ross states that filming began in 2009, this is a film of emotion and evocation, not chronological narrative.) Over five years, Ross recorded life in the area, capturing the residents as well as the environmental ambiance. The resulting film is a brief but evocative recreation of rural life, a portrait that veers from abstract and implacable imagery to the everyday voyeurism of our post-Instagram/YouTube era at its most quotidian.
This is not to suggest that Hale County is a mere scrapbook of random images. Ross anchors his atmospheric account with portraits of two young men struggling to survive in an economic quagmire. The first, a local college student named Daniel Collins, dreams that basketball or rap will carry him away from the area. (Ross also speaks to Collins' estranged mother, resigned to her life working in the local catfish-processing factory.) The second, Quincy Bryant, supports a family and even faces an unimaginable tragedy, all in front of Ross' seemingly objective lens. Ross also spends much time filming Bryant's partner Boosie, although noting in a typically cryptic inter-title, "Carrying twins now, Boosie careth not about the film."
For all of its abstract elements — Ross films the stages of the moon and a sped-up cruise down a small-town Main Street, lingering on the rising cloud of smoke created by burning tires — Hale County has a very down-to-earth subject in mind. Ross lingers on scenes in which nothing really seems to happen: a basketball team waits for a game to begin, a group of men carry furniture into an apartment, a toddler dashes from one end of a room to the other with the determination of an Olympic medalist. The filmmaker's intent, he announces early on, is "to figure out how we've come to be seen."
We've seen a lot of post-Ferguson documentaries about black lives, but if it seems briefly strange to watch such simple and ordinary scenes free from any larger social context, it may also be deliberate. In some respects, Hale County shares common ground with Frederick Wiseman's recent film Monrovia, Indiana. Scheduled to air on PBS later this year, Wiseman's film also offers a view of small-town life in the 21st century, in a place that's the racial opposite of Hale County. It's another film in which the political context is almost subliminal, but impossible to ignore. And in his own way, Ross is saying that black lives matter, and that he need not offer any further explanation.