Documentary filmmaking is an intimate act. The subject must trust the director enough to allow the camera to capture their most intimate moments and secrets, laying them bare before a prying and curious audience. It’s not something that should be done casually — especially when it puts Black, brown, and impoverished people on display, many of whom don’t have any real control over how they are presented to the world. In his debut feature documentary, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, director RaMell Ross immerses himself deep into the Alabama Black Belt, following two young men, Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant over the course of five years.
Throwing away the traditional tropes often seen in documentary film, Ross is most concerned with capturing the purity of Black life, with all of its beauty, joy, and frustrations. A photographer and basketball coach, Ross moved to Alabama in 2009 and decided to shift how rural poor Black people are seen in the media. In doing so, he unravels Walker Evans and James Agee’s 1941 Depression-era study of sharecroppers in Hale County, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the text, there was not a single close-up of a Black face.
Told non-linearly, Hale County This Morning, This Evening is made up of incredible moments and moving scenes. It’s up to the audience to try and ground themselves in the film, with Ross acting like a guide, providing statements but mostly asking questions about Black life, what the source of our dreams are, and if we can even be contained within the frame of a film.
As we come to know Daniel, who plays basketball at the HBCU Selma University with hopes of making it to the major leagues, we also meet his mother, Mary, whom he is somewhat estranged from because he was raised by his grandmother. We watch scenes from the locker room, Daniel and his teammates roughhousing and preparing for a game, as well as the young man’s quiet commentary on his height – he’s not even six feet tall.