I’ll never forget the bait and switch I felt when I first watched Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep about a decade ago at the New Orleans Film Festival. I took the title awfully literally, thinking this would be some sort of provocative horror. Better yet, I was privy to a slice of life fable, timeless in presentation, dramatic in the telling, romantic in style. Burnett’s work lives and breathes with such importance and resonance, voluminous without having to say a word. Few filmmakers ever hit this pitch. RaMell Ross is one such filmmaker.
His debut feature film, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, isn’t easily pulled together, being a fractured mirror we are all staring at, shards of glass poking out at different angles, creating obscurities in the reflection of ourselves. A photographer first and foremost, RaMell has quite the eye and mind for visual movement and conceptualization, finding more naturally beautiful and serendipitous images than say a Terrence Malick might. Sometimes he alters the lights, the filters, the frame rate, to create and capture something beyond what lies before him and us. A truth that exists beyond the easily perceived?
Hale County is about an undisclosed contemporary time period in the lives of a set of young and old African Americans in the rural South of Alabama, specifically focusing on the burgeoning and growing family of a poor couple, and the sports training of another young man in this region. We see their lives unfold amongst the ruins or well-maintained properties of old plantations and cotton fields, juxtaposing in unsettling and always in your face ways. They’re constantly reminded of a past their ancestors lived, and the lives they deal with: Many times, police pull over or stop and question individuals, just as they are horsing around or conversing. The threat of the rug being pulled out from under them, the whip striking their backs, is always here and prevalent. To live under such a thumb, I cannot begin to imagine.
The film, a sort of hybrid documentary and college essay, expresses itself out of time as we know it, re-constructing itself from a broken beginning to interconnect not just the personalities of the people spotlighted, but also their own timelines. The athlete could very well be the older version of a toddler we see earlier, running back and forth across a living room floor. He isn’t, but things feel so fluid in this way, almost a visual metaphor for how things, the tragedy and the triumphs, the anxieties, and the pleasures, end up repeating no matter how far ahead of slavery times we get. It will always loom above.
The cameraman is never (or rarely) heard from, only spoken to. Really though, he could just be what the documented are seeing, as they just speak aloud to themselves or to an imaginary audience they’ve conjured up. This feeling persists in Hale County to get everyone to open up to a soulful honesty that is hardly ever reached. A sequence in a Church, where strong emotions are purged collectively for the congregation, delivered such outstanding, raw, and exposed nerves, I was left with palpitations. Another where a college student goes through Basketball drills, with the camera nearly stuck to the side of his body as he motions and powers through, sent chills down my spine. Hale County cuts up compositions from the start, only to re-purpose and let shine as if they were organically found. It’s beautiful, from the imagery and the framing to the editorial and the inquisitive.
Where Killer of Sheep had romance in the midst of poverty and maturity, Hale County has determination in spite of sensory trauma. It never rests, nor should it. The camera is always awake, always seeking and searching and observing and absorbing. This is how cinema should be.
RATING: 5 / 5
Hale County This Morning, This Evening screens for free at The Ogden Museum on January 11th at 7 PM (doors open at 6:30 PM). RaMell Ross will be in attendance for a Q&A.
Bill Arceneaux is the lead content writer for Big Easy Magazine. In addition to this, he has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Be sure to check out his film reviews and other articles here.