This is the first installment of “Breaking Black,” a new weekly column focused on emerging black talent.
Photographer-turned-filmmaker RaMell Ross’ debut feature, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” was not your typical Oscar nominee. But this impressionistic meditation on black southern life, which was nominated for Best Documentary earlier this year following a strong reception on the festival circuit, heralded the filmmaker as a distinct new voice. Ross, however, is indifferent to the sudden burst of acclaim surrounding his talent, and continues to find new ways of experimenting with the cinematic form. Months after awards season has receded, he’s enmeshed in curatorial and creative work that shows no sign of compromise.
Many documentary filmmakers cite the masters of the medium as inspiration, but Ross’ biggest influence points to his unique impulses: It’s Alan Ginsberg’s seminal book-length beat poem “Howl.” “I’ve kind of had that as my mark for the scale and grandness of what I want to accomplish with my work,” Ross said in an interview. “I believe that because cinema is still young, there’s much possibility, and everyone should intuitively know that the power of cinema hasn’t been fully exploited, and perhaps the logic of industry, traditional narratives, and of the business structure, are barriers to getting to it’s new iteration.”
These lofty ideals are motivated by a desire to represent blackness onscreen in radical terms. Ross said he takes into account the theory of an “oppositional gaze,” and the way it can supplant conventional mass media characterizations of “blackness.” He’s defiant in his impulse to create a space where he can wander creatively without any compromise. And he’s in as advantageous a position as he’s ever been to do just that, with an Academy Award nomination (and several other prestigious accolades) to his credit.
With the lengthy whirlwind tour of awards season campaigning now officially behind him, Ross regarded the experience in practical terms. “It was surprisingly fun during the build up of getting to an Oscar nomination because you imagine that everything is in service of having the best possible marketing,” he said. Additionally, it was a chance for him to enlighten audiences about his intentions. “I discovered that people are incredibly undereducated about black aesthetics, theory and culture,” he said, “so I took the task of sharing ideas and giving people entryways into understanding how black folks, specifically in the States, have been visualized.”
A self-described “military brat,” Ross was born in Frankfurt, Germany, but grew up mostly in the U.S., with stays in Indiana, Chicago, Maryland and Virginia. During his youth, he frequently returned to Frankfurt to visit his German grandmother. “I think it’s kind of interesting for those of us who grow up abroad but are still American, who just have a different perspective on American culture and the world in general,” he said. “Having a biracial mother who had these really eclectic interests that were partly capable because she was so fair-skinned, and having my grandma surround us with idiosyncratic pieces of European culture, kind of told me to not put limitations on my own interests.”
Ross’ childhood artistic leanings were nurtured by his parents from the very beginning. Both grew up in abject poverty and wanted their children to have the kind of freedom of career exploration and personal fulfillment that evaded them early in life. After the military, a government job for his father transitioned the family into the middle class, which allowed the children to dream.
“I would say something like, ‘Mom I want to be a flutist that plays underwater,'” Ross said, “and she’d reply with, ‘son, you can be the greatest flutist ever that plays underwater.’ And that kind of openness, to know that it’s okay to creatively explore, still guides my ethos to this very day.”
He would go onto earn an MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design, and his photographs have been exhibited internationally, most recently at a solo exhibition in New York last summer. His relationship to the movies was a more recent development. That journey started when Ross moved from Washington D.C. to Hale County, Alabama in 2009, attracted to a slower pace of life in a city of less than 3,000 people, and a job-training high school equivalency program that helped black youth whose lives “presented consistent emotional and mental exhaustion.” It was there that he met Daniel and Quincy, the two young men who wound up as the focus of his documentary. The work he was hired to do would extend beyond the typical 40-hour work week, but he always made sure to create space to think about and make art.
That included experimenting with what he described as “really shitty music videos,” a few short films, and, more prominently, a photographic series that would go on to be titled “South County, AL (a Hale County).” The series, which examined blackness in the American South, evolves into the documentary project.
“I wanted to bring art world ideas into a documentary space,” Ross said. “Every medium has its limitations, but if you would like to — as I say — carry someone’s consciousness, you can’t use the still image. The sequential 24 frames per second are far more transportive.”
Edited down from 1,300 hours of footage accumulated over five years, “Hale County” runs a lean 76 minutes, but manages to work in some big ideas into that running time; each scene capturing black Americans going about life, finding grandeur in the most ordinary.
Despite its eventual awards season acclaim, “Hale County” had a rough start: After an international film festival tour, where it picked up several awards, “Hale County” failed to draw much interest from U.S. distributors.
“There were people from several major companies that bought all these other films, who would tell me that they liked ‘Hale,’ but they didn’t know what to do with it,” Ross said. “The thing about my film is that it’s not so easily log-lined and it’s impossible to know what it is until you see it, but I still obviously want as many people to see it as possible.”
New York-based The Cinema Guild eventually acquired the film, giving it a limited theatrical run last fall. It opened to universal critical acclaim, and the documentary community mobilized around Ross’ achievement, which culminated in its Oscar nomination. But Ross said that outcome has had a negligible effect on him.
“It doesn’t really mean anything personally to me, and I don’t think about it unless someone mentions it,” he said. “Since then, I’ve had several inquiries from people about collaborating on film projects, but nothing has really come out of any conversations.” He added that the limited income potential of documentaries, his interests as a filmmaker, and his experimental style were all deterrents from the prospects of landing some major gig.
Ross maintains his job as a faculty member at Brown University’s Visual Arts Department and recently completed his first short film, “Easter Snap.” An examination of five Alabama men who resurrect the homestead ritual of hog processing in the Deep South, the film premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Currently, he serves as curator for the Thematic Program for the 22nd annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival which runs April 4 – 7 in Durham, North Carolina. “This is the first time I’ve ever curated something, and it’s really exciting, and I’m having a lot of fun,” Ross said.
Titled “Some Other Lives of Time,” the program is a meditation on the documentary form, and the experience of watching. It highlights seven documentaries, including Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), an apocalyptic vision of the collision of technology and the environment. It’s the first film in Reggio’s “Qatsi” trilogy, which was a tremendous influence on “Hale County,” Ross said.
Next, Ross said he had plans for a “monumental” solo show at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, which launches in 2020. He expected the show to include a mix of installations, photography, sculpture and other media. But he wasn’t done with filmmaking, and said he had begun considering the prospects of directing his first narrative feature. “I definitely intend to work in that realm,” he said, but added that he had no specifics to offer.
Nevertheless, he’s giddy about further experimentation with the cinematic medium, motivated by his desire to explore new ways to capture the vastness of the black experience. “Creating work that makes observations about race, specifically blackness, is what’s important to me; that is my starting point,” he said. “So I think my calling is to make space for this truth to be less invisible, and for it to participate in the poetry of our world.”
RaMell Ross’ “Some Other Lives of Time” thematic program at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, April 4-7.