RaMell Ross knows the press notes for his first feature can be misleading: “An intimate portrait of a place and its people, ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’ follows Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, two young African-American men from rural Hale County, Alabama, over the course of five years. Collins attends college in search of opportunity while Bryant becomes a father to an energetic son.”
For a doc-savvy viewer, it’s a description that conjures a certain type of well-trod character portrait. One seen through the lens of a well-intentioned, socially conscious filmmaker, probably white, who uses these men’s lives as a way to shed light on the systemic struggle of black men in this country. And that’s not Ross, or his film.
“No one really spends five solid years with someone in order to represent their life,” said Ross when he was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. “They come in with a specific idea — ‘This person has a really good character’ — and they chose certain things from [hours of filming every day] to represent a person. [It] becomes the representation of truth of not only the person, but the community and the African-American experience.”
Collins and Bryant experience major life events over the five years. For one character, he experiences an unforeseen tragedy that would be the second-act turning point in any other nonfiction film. However, Ross refused to use these as tentpoles to structure his film. He did not want to construct a narrative leading up to those moments, nor did he want to reduce his character’s lives to a series of major decisions surrounding these events.
“From the moment you show someone making a decision on film, you judge that moment and that starts to build your point of view of the character’s life path,” he said. “We need more stories of the African-American experience from a multiple of perspectives, especially from inside the African-American community, but stories are also pretty damning at times and they can foreclose a greater understanding of the person’s life or how they got there or what composes them as person.”
Ross grew up in Norther Virginia and went to school at Georgetown University and Rhode Island School of Design; he now teaches at Brown University in Providence. He initially found himself in the South when he was invited to teach a two-week youth photography class, and ended up staying the better part of a decade. While enjoying the change of pace and his work with young people, via coaching sports and teaching art, he also fell in love with the canvas it presented for his photography.
“The south is the [center] of the black experience,” said Ross. “It’s where we were put, it’s the origin of the image, from minstrel shows to flyers of a lynching, that represent what it means to be a black person. That was a great belief system to start investigating the relationship between what being black is and the reproduction of that blackness via film and photography.”
Ross’ photography creates moments of ambiguity, presenting frames that allow for multiple ways of seeing something — as he describes it, using black skin in the South as a Rorschach test. He was always drawn to moving images, but he didn’t see a model that could translate what he did with still photography.
“One photograph is suppose to have all the meaning you can possibly put in it, ‘This is the center of the universe,'” said Ross. “And when it comes to film, every photograph is neutered and it’s suppose to be proving something else. To me, to neuter a photograph of person of color in some general sense is to continue to forget the complexity of the black experience, because of the history of the black image.”
While filming in Alabama, Ross turned to books analyzing the history of the way African Americans had been portrayed in images. Even today, films about black characters cannot escape the subject matter of the characters being black.
“I intuitively knew about the problem with cinema and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s why. There’s this thing called “black representational space” that everything falls into,'” said Ross. “Once it’s in the this black representational space, everything is foreclosed to this meaning of blackness. It can’t be about a greater humanity.”
Ross wondered if there was a way for him to film by approaching each shot like his photographs — capturing something complex and whole, rather than being subservient to a larger narrative or being a portrayal of blackness itself. With Bryant and Collins, two teenagers he’d grown close to during his first three years in Alabama, he decided to experiment with the technique. Early in filming, Ross was playing video games in a trailer home with a few of his young subjects and they walked outside just as a massive storm appeared. The boys just stood and stared in awe.
“It’s something I realized quite early,” Ross said. “I’d film and I’d see the moment that I think would be used to represent a person and then I continue filming, then this magical moment would happen. And I’m like, this is kind of what life is – this is something you happen upon and if the entire film could be made of magical moments, it could be experiential for the viewer.”
Ross believed there was a way to capture the beauty and heroic nature of his characters’ ordinary lives, one in which they weren’t viewed through a lens of black pain, and construct a film that became a form of participatory cinema rather than an abstract art. However, when he cut together eight minutes for meetings with potential funders, all of them wanted to know more about Collins’ and Bryant’s narrative — “What was their story?” All, but one.
Joslyn Barnes, co-founder of Louverture Films with Danny Glover, helped shepherd innovative nonfiction films (“The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975”) and international scripted narrative directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”) and Lucrecia Martel (“Zama”). She saw what Ross was reaching for, and as she did with Yance Ford on “Strong Island,” helped surround the filmmaker with a talented post-production team that could aid him in forging his own unique path.
Ross would ultimately find his narrative inspiration in prose, Faulkner and Salinger having a particularly big influence, but it was in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” written about the region where Ross filmed, where he discovered his structuring device. Agee’s 1941 essays accompanied photographs by Walker Evans, whose groundbreaking portraits captured the dignity in the lives of impoverished tenant farmers during the Great Depression. However, it was Agee’s words that sparked the breakthrough.
“Agee describes things in terms of light, mood, movement,” said Ross. “I really love looking at the light and the moon and trying to figure out, just looking at it through the camera.”
Ross started to look at his footage in the same way. He started to see the light and time of day as a way to connect seemingly disparate images into a fluid whole. He began piecing his film together as 11 days, sunrise to night to sunrise again. The finished, 78-minute film followed the flow of five musical movements, as Bryant and Collins float in and out of frame, their lives progressing through college and fatherhood.
To call the enthralling “Hale County” “experimental” is a mistake. In a year when Ryan Coogler showed what black superheroes could look like, and Barry Jenkins showed what the power of black love could feel like, the most the groundbreaking and important work of 2018 may prove to be Ross’s “Hale County.” Ross is a filmmaker who not only flipped the script on the portrayal of African Americans, but created his own filmic language to do it.
“I want to say documentary filmmakers are some of the most conscious media makers, the most empathetic, though sometimes empathy is the problem,” said Ross. “It’s embedded in the form of the practice itself … we’re conditioned to think about things in certain ways. A big challenge is evolving to be able to receive things with complexity, and then for us to take those risks.”
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” is one of 15 films that are part of the upcoming DOC NYC Short List, a distinction that often correlates to being shortlisted for an Academy Award. The first Doc NYC Screening is November 9, 3:15 PM. The second screening is November 14th at 12:30 PM.