Not rated. I watched this on PBS, so language was bleeped out. I think I noticed three times when the audio was censored. The subjects of the film use the colloquial version of the n-word which isn't censored. But the film lacks any real objectionable content. There is some troubling footage surrounding SIDS, so keep that in mind. Considering that the movie is almost more lyric poetry than it is a narrative film, the imagery is very serene. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: RaMell Ross
You know, I thought that I've written "Koyaanisqatsi" enough times that I would never have to look it up again. Apparently, I've dumped that knowledge from my brain from when I finished the trilogy. I mention Koyaanisqatsi because I find that analysis remarkably hard to write about. When a film deconstructs a narrative, much like Koyaanisqatsi or Hale County This Morning, This Evening, all you can kind of do is approach it from an artistic perspective and hope that some deep thought manages to pervade your writing. If you find my writing meandering, it's because I might be trying to find the thread in the middle of the sentence. It's bad writing sure. But it's my blog and I gave myself rules on writing no matter what.
Like I mentioned, Koyaanisqatsi and Hale County are siblings. They are both in a very specific subgenre of film. I know that there is a term, but I'm without caffeine and trying to write before work starts. I guess it could be visual poetry. I've now taken a bunch of poetry classes in grad school. I'm taking one now, actually. Hale County shares more qualities with lyric poetry than it does with a traditional film, let alone a documentary. Hale County will always carry the tag of documentary because it has real subjects doing actual things. There is no script. Rather, RaMell Ross simply films the world around him. There are times in the film where he makes himself part of the documentary, mainly because people have no problem interacting with him while he films. I have a hard time understanding Ross, who he is. The entire movie has a very artsy fartsy vibe to it. I mean, it's pretty pretentious at times. It's not bad. I happen to like pretentious. And if Hale County was going to work in the format it is in, it has to be pretty pretentious. But Ross, when he's on camera, doesn't seem like the documentarian that is making this movie. The movie is formatted with extremely short vignettes of daily life among African Americans in Hale County. Mostly, these are mundane moments. A kid running back and forth time-and-again is probably the most memorable of the individual scenes. But what he's filming is remarkably unpretentious. These are just people having a good time, for the most part. It is almost like the entire movie is an establishing shot. But then he breaks up his films into almost act breaks with a flat black title card that has a quote. Sometimes, that quote just screams what we're about to look at. Sometimes, that quote just seems abstract and lyrical. Comparing this to the man who is just having conversations, it's really interesting to see how Ross identifies himself. Can someone really be so segmented that they can show both sides of themselves in one work of art? I know that I'm many many many different people. But I think that's almost a reaction to my environment and my company. People have certain expectations of me and there should be a line drawn. I guess Ross is honest and vulnerable among people when he's filming. He is a member of the community. He is a son and a friend. Like Bing Liu's Minding the Gap, he still maintains his personality despite the fact that he is creating something that has a sense of identity through art. But that artist may have more to say. It might actually be rude to be the artist when documenting something or when creating art. Instead, he lives in the moment. See, I told you I figure out things when I write! Ross puts on a very different headspace and there probably is a vulnerability to the movie as a whole considering that he's showing the disparate elements of his personality in a single work.
I think the point of Hale County is that it is supposed to be simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable. Ross invites all viewers to be honest members of a culture. Instead of getting artifice because people are aware that they are on camera, the cinema verite style of filmmaking seems to lower people's defenses. Very rarely are people speaking to the camera. There are a few moments where someone is answering a specific question addressed to him or her. But really, we are eavesdropping on conversations already in progress. This goes as far as to hear conversations that may lack a formal context. There were many times in the movie where I just had to instantly adapt to what was happening. But this creates an interesting mood throughout the piece. Hale County reminds us that life isn't about high tension points constantly. It's about the mundane. But that mundane doesn't cover up the fact that an entire demographic of the United States live a very different life than others because they are marginalized. I had a weird epiphany while watching the movie that I hope Ross stresses in the film for a reason. Throughout the film, there are police lights. I'm not talking about far away police lights. These are police lights that Ross is filming as part of the subject matter. We don't see arrests or footage that may prove incriminating. Rather, the movie simply has a presence of police lights. Perhaps this is a moment to wake up a part of America who aren't aware how often people of color are targeted as criminals, but those lights are all over. That means that Ross was in multiple situations where he was pulled over and could film these lights. Ross doesn't elucidate whether or not someone was doing something that merited police lights. But there also is the context of the rest of the film. Ross continually films these mundane moments. They aren't all happy, but they are mostly serene. Kids play baseball in the backyard. Friends get together to play video games way too late. We get to see people at a county fair. Nothing in the film looks criminal. The people of Hale County live is a pretty all-encompassing African American de facto population. This isn't the city. It screams rural farmland, yet there are still people being picked up for actions that are left ambiguous. Ross is addressing race in a passive way, I suppose. There is one moment of the film that is pretty on the nose when it comes to pointing out the history of racism. When driving to the plantation, Ross interjects raw footage of a film that uses blackface. This character is hiding out among the bushes, spying suspiciously at something unseen by us. Hale County, I suppose, is a film about race. But it is not a film about race in the ways we think about it. Often, lyric poetry requires a bit of unpacking. Bad lyric poetry will let you know what to think and what to feel and it tends to leave us pretty quickly. But Hale County makes you ruminate on these moments and explore them...I guess in a way that I'm doing right now.
The film is not without a narrative altogether. Ross checks in on certain people over the course of the documentary. These are the people who are aware of the documentary nature of the movie. Like Hoop Dreams, we get to check in on the progress of these people over the course of the documentary shoot. There is no real arc or anything, but it is interesting to see where these people go over the film. We follow Boosie with her pregnancy. We see her deal with birth and loss. It is emotionally powerful, but I don't think Ross ever intends to get manipulative. Rather, it humanizes the subject of the film. I can't help but make comparisons to The Diary of Anne Frank. It is hard to think of a group of people as one thing. But it is easy to relate to one person and sympathize with one person. Daniel and Boosie help us understand that people are individuals first and culturally representative way later. Boosie is a tough nut to crack because she doesn't want to be involved. That's what the title card said and it definitely paints my viewing of her. The skeptical participant is an interesting addition to the film as a whole. Because Boosie doesn't want to be involved, we watch someone take the opposite stance of most participants in documentaries. There's a look of mild annoyance on her face and that becomes the most relatable thing of all. She is pregnant. A camera in her face is the last thing she wants. But then there's also Daniel and his college career. It seems like Daniel's story has the most potential for something to actually happen. He's this kid who just gets to go to college. But he really wants to play basketball. It's like seeing the plot to Hoop Dreams right there and Ross decides to only touch on it. Daniel almost entirely defines himself through his basketball ambitions, but the movie only shows a bit of that. We get to see him practice. We see him have a conversation with his coach about stepping up. But the movie never really becomes about basketball. It's really interesting because Daniel doesn't support the basketball narrative. Rather, basketball colors Daniel with something that he loves. We understand that he's passionate and excited and the movie intentionally ignores any kind of goalsetting for the story. Rather, Daniel gives us the most rounded person in the story. But he is just another person in a rich world full of people that have their own stories. We just get to know Daniel's and Boosie's stories better than the other ones.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a gorgeous documentary. He's a photographer and it shows. From a technical perspective, the movie is positively gorgeous. I think I said that if I was still working at the video store, I would play Koyaanisqatsi (Didn't look this time!) over the monitors all of the time. I don't think that I would any more. Not with something like Hale County. Koyaanisqatsi is stressful. It supposed to be stressful to a certain degree. Hale County brings an odd serenity. It is almost a celebration of a people and it is done through the lens of someone who understands composition and tone very well. It's a pretty movie full of great trick artsy shots and I like that from time to time. I will say that the movie gets pretty boring at times and that it is almost ASMR. I watched this while running and that's not always the smartest choice in the world when you really want to be focusing on something. But it also forced me to be away from my phone. Time dragged on the treadmill, but I caught every element of this movie. It's good, but I can't say that I will ever love it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.