Hale County This Morning, This Evening enters the Oscar nomination voting homestretch with added momentum. The documentary by RaMell Ross captured Outstanding Nonfiction Feature at the Cinema Eye Honors in New York Thursday night, the latest prize for a film that has been racking up awards since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last January.
“It’s really gratifying,” Ross tells Deadline when pressed for his reaction to the film’s reception. “I’m eternally appreciative of the team that we had. We were like, ‘I don’t care what anyone says. We like the film. We can stand behind what we did.’”
What Ross and his team did was to create a film that observes in compelling detail the African-American experience in a rural part of Alabama. Black lives here are rendered in poetic imagery of wonder and beauty, in sharp contrast to typical depictions of African-American life (often made by non-black filmmakers) which tend to confine characters to a political frame. Here, the characters and scenes feel whole unto themselves, not peered at through a keyhole.
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Ross says it was not easy to sum up his documentary concept to potential backers.
“It was incredibly difficult, which is evidenced by every pitch or every conversation being completely different. I would talk about the film differently every time,” Ross recalls. “I think the biggest challenge was having people not dismiss the project as some sort of overly personalized artistic endeavor and to see the idea that representation of a culture is content for a film.”
The director foregrounds a handful of people in Hale County, including Quincy Bryant and Daniel Collins, young men the director met while he was working in Alabama as a teacher and basketball coach. But it’s not a character-driven film per se, and it’s not a traditional narrative either—the film exists as a collection of irreducible moments (in that respect it can be compared with another film to make the Oscar documentary shortlist, The Distant Barking of Dogs).
“The idea of a community portrait” is what the director had in mind, he says. But he avoids making blanket pronouncements on Hale County.
“One issue that I have with a lot of films is that they’re so strongly ‘about something’ that it forecloses a person’s participation in what that means for them,” he comments, “because they feel like they’re being lectured or they feel like the message is so strong.”
Ross is a noted photographer and shot the film himself with a relatively small DSLR camera.
“You can wield that thing as like part of your body,” he observes. “To me what was interesting is having the camera act as an extension of consciousness so that you’re not using it to capture, you’re using it to look as you would look when you’re participating in their lives.”
The film is paced with interludes where text appears over a black screen, sometimes featuring enigmatic lines of poetry like, “What is the orbit of our dreaming?”
“We thought the film needed breaks. I do a lot of writing anyway and silent films have writing and our film’s very visual,” Ross notes. “It kind of was a test. We tested it. Some of it was weird and more obscure and then we would pare some of it down.”
Ross praises producer Joslyn Barnes (Strong Island) for her contributions to the film, from the logistical to the creative. He cites one example from when Hale County was in the editing stage.
“Joslyn liked to say, ‘We have to figure out how we get the film to wash through people. Now it’s washing over them,’” Ross remembers. “Which just meant that you sit back in the theater instead of lean forward.”
Barnes also encouraged the director to incorporate into Hale County a scene from a silent movie from 1913 starring the Caribbean-American actor Bert Williams, who appears in blackface. Ross learned about the obscure film from a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
“Joslyn was like, ‘Should we put some of it in the film?’ And I’m like, ‘Absolutely no! We’re not going to put any archival footage in this film. Are you crazy?’” Ross tells Deadline. “Then you think about that [sequence] and you find a place for it…It was a watershed moment for the film because when we put it in the middle it reorganized the second half” of the documentary.
That was one of many creative choices that form the sum of Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Ross expresses some surprise that his documentary has made it into an exclusive circle of the year’s most celebrated films, given that he didn’t have much in the way of a promotional budget.
“We don’t have any money, like literally no money,” he acknowledges. “So we’re like a word of mouth film.”
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