First-time filmmaker RaMell Ross was working as a youth coach in rural Alabama when he starting shooting, vérité style, the lives of two young men there, Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, whom he followed through five years of triumph and tragedy, of hoping for better lives and working toward them in a place that offers little opportunity. The result is a little bit slice of life, a little bit stream of consciousness. Hale County This Morning, This Evening isn’t like any documentary you’ve seen before… certainly not one about what it’s like to be poor and black in America.
Ross approaches his subjects, their friends and family, and the world around them — both natural and manmade — more in the spirit of poetry and impressionism than journalism or sociology (though Ross in fact studied the latter): this is a film that flows over you, if you let it, engaging our empathy with a deceptively simple humanity that is unencumbered by the terrible stereotypes that often accompany depictions of African-American men, though Ross occasionally reminds us just how insidious those stereotypes have been, with an effectiveness that is startling and shocking. (The filmmaker is black, and his film is a powerful argument for the need for more African-American voices in cinema.) There’s plenty that’s straight-up beautiful here, but Ross also finds beauty in everyday mundanity, like a toddler’s joy at the newfound skill of running; and beauty in ugliness, such as how the sun shines through trees choking from the smoke of a tire fire. Even the film’s title, which might lead you to believe it will cover events over only a single day, contributes to its lovely sense of personal time as a flow that gets compressed in our memory; it’s very rare indeed that a film’s title adds something so key to the film itself.
Ross has a vision that is distinctive and a perspective we desperately need more of, and that’s been reflected in the acclaim Hale County has garnered, including its Special Jury Prize at Sundance and the Best Documentary nod at the Gotham Awards; it has also been nominated for a DGA Award (which it could win on February 2nd) and shortlisted for the 2019 Oscars (nominations will be announced on January 22nd). This film may herald the arrival of an important new voice in American cinema, and I’m eager to see what Ross has for us next.
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