What does it mean to not just look but to look repeatedly? For an extended amount of time? So often, the history of black representation has been a tale of looking away, sidelong, through, and/or incorrectly. Framed haphazardly are afterimages, lies, and fantasies. These mirages pile on top of each other until the images are blurred.
RaMell Ross’s documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening exposes these mirages by engaging with a vital subject and action: framing. Ross asks what makes a frame, what spills over it, and who exists outside of it. For me, the frame is a significant mechanism in Hale County This Morning, This Evening—it is a tool that (re)directs the viewer’s eye and generates self-reflection.
By experimenting with framing, Ross makes room for different representations of African Americans. He invites viewers to glance over the shoulder of his interviewees, inhabitants of Hale County, Alabama. For example, Ross’s documentary follows two Hale County locals, Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, and their families. Collins, who has hopes of becoming a professional basketball player, attends college; Bryant has a son and two twin babies. During Ross’s documentary, I saw births and deaths in Collins’s and Bryant’s lives, and, through the eye of the lens, they expressed everything from hope and humor to sadness and tiredness.
Along with framing these informants, Ross recorded the beauty of ordinariness: his cinematography captured basketball training drills, bees turning endlessly in circles, men and women praising in church pews, girls singing outside of school, men standing atop horses, Bryant’s toddler son running in the living room, hair braiding, and pregame locker room warm-ups. With these scenes, Ross prompted the viewer to dwell in the ordinary, an intention which is rarely given to black representation. At the same time, these daily snapshots were punctuated by police cars’ flashing red and blue lights, a recurring presence in the film which reflects the continuous invasion of racism and police brutality.
In addition to the documentary’s visual frames, as Ross explained in his discussion after the film’s viewing, the score functioned as a way to expand the frame, to (re)position the viewer in relation to the film. In particular, three scenes stand out. In one scene, the camera travels over rows of cotton fields, afterimages of slavery that imprint Hale County; this long shot is accompanied by sounds of high school cheerleaders leading basketball game chants. With motion and sound, Ross blurs time: was I hearing present-day calls or the echoes of the past? Significantly, the scene draws attention to the situatedness of sound—while we may work hard to situate sound in time, it escapes our temporal boundaries, living both in the past and the present.
Ross also creatively mixes sound and image by decontextualizing and re-contextualizing audio. During a basketball game, Collins celebrates a teammate’s scored point. He jumps in the air and, referring to his teammate, yells, “Whose child is this?” Yet, the humor of Collins’s question dissipates as it is repeated over images of police cars stopping African Americans. “Whose child is this?” The question, once shouted in joy, becomes metacommentary. “Whose child is this?” It calls for the necessity of looking, of recognizing African Americans’ humanity. Recognizing someone’s child.
Yet, perhaps Ross’s most striking juxtaposition of sound and image is a clip of Bert Williams, a nineteenth and twentieth-century black performer. In this scene, the film moves back and forth between Williams who, in blackface, looks at a former plantation in present-day Hale County. His look reminds us of America’s long fascination with and popularization of blackface minstrelsy, and thus a long, racist history of African American stereotypes that Williams himself had to navigate. Williams’s gaze prompts a discussion: who does the making and looking? Who does the framing? And, for what purpose and audience?
Ultimately, Ross’s frames are hard to shake—in fact, his frames traveled with me. This past week, I was in Birmingham, Alabama for a conference. On my first day walking downtown, I promptly became lost. Perhaps it was fortuitous; I saw more of a daily Birmingham by foot than I would have seen through a car window. Along my walk, I saw murals that reached above my street-level gaze. I saw children playing in a park, steps away from a signpost that marked several Civil Rights events. I saw a man framed by a stoplight, moving haltingly but confidently in the distance. I wondered how Ross would frame these daily moments. How would he call for a conscious and conscientious view that dwelled on the mural’s sky-blue-infused paint, the children’s beautifully coordinated play, and the man’s measured gate, actions and objects framed by the Deep South? How would he challenge his viewer to reflect on their own relationship to the South? How would he show that these present, ephemeral moments do not move away from history but look beside, within, and through it?
- “Bert Williams.” BROADWAY: THE AMERICAN MUSICAL, Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2018, pbs.org/wnet/broadway/stars/bert-williams/. Accessed 12 November 2018.
- Gray, Christopher. “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.” Slant Magazine, 27 Mar. 2018. Program Notes.
- “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.” The Cinema Guild, 2018, cinemaguild.com/theatrical/halecounty.html. Accessed 12 November 2018.
- “Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018).” IMDb, 2018, imdb.com/title/tt6634646/?ref_=tt_mv_close. Accessed 12 November 2018.
- “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.” Wexner Center for the Arts, 2018, wexarts.org/film-video/hale-county-morning-evening. Accessed 12 November 2018.
- Kenny, Glenn. “Review: A Multiplicity of Moments in Under 80 Minutes in ‘Hale County.’” The New York Times, 13 Sept. 2018, nytimes.com/2018/09/13/movies/hale-county-this-morning-this-evening-review-ramell-ross.html. Accessed 12 November 2018.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, image courtesy of The Cinema Guild
Unorthodocs image: Melissa Starker