“Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” is a poetic documentary with a gift for making enrapturing imagery out of what sound like ordinary, everyday events.
Because these ordinary moments come from the everyday lives of African Americans in the deep South state of Alabama — a reality movies rarely explore — the film’s accomplishments are even more noteworthy.
Very much a personal project for filmmaker RaMell Ross, whose credit line reads “directed, filmed, edited and written by,” “Hale County” was a success at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning a special jury prize for creative vision.
The film’s 76 minutes were painstakingly culled (Robb Moss, Joslyn Barnes and Maya Krinsky also receive editing credits) from over 1,300 hours of footage shot over a five-year period when Ross, an accomplished still photographer, moved to Alabama to take a teaching position.
It wasn’t just anywhere in Alabama that the filmmaker had moved to. Hale County, at one point largely white, was where photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee went in the 1930s to do the work that became the legendary collaboration “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
By 2009, when Ross’ project begins, the racial demographics of the county had changed — so much so that almost the only white person on screen is Audrey Hepburn, in a photograph from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” placed in a local beauty salon.
But while thoughts of representation are very much on Ross’ mind (he even includes a clip from a recently restored 1913 film starring black actor Bert Williams performing in blackface) the goal here is not so much to prove a point as to show things as they are.
The focus of the film is nominally on two young men who became friends of Ross’ and whose paths are not the same.
Daniel Collins, a committed basketball player, wants that sport to be his ticket out of small-town life. With that in mind, as well as wanting a school that he feels respects him, he heads off to nearby Selma University.
Quincy Bryant, meanwhile, is staying home in Greensboro after having dropped out of high school to raise a family with Latrenda “Boosie” Ash, the mother of his young son Kyrie — but he is no less determined to make something of his life.
To a certain extent, “Hale County” alternates between these men’s lives, showing random moments as well as milestones both happy and tragic.
For Daniel we see a lot of basketball. He literally glistens with sweat as he practices his jump shot over and over again and, in one compelling verite segment, hangs in the locker room with his teammates in the minutes before a game begins.
Quincy’s moments, not surprisingly, are mostly family oriented and include endearing shots of hyper-energetic son Kyrie running back and forth and back and forth in the family’s small apartment.
But “Hale County” is also intent on simply providing memorable images from day-to-day observation, as ordinary as furniture being moved, chicken being fried, blues being played and smoke rising in mysterious patterns from a trash fire.
Sometimes there are visual links between the moments, like drops of sweat giving way to raindrops presaging a major storm, but mostly these images are linked only by the filmmakers’ poetic intelligence.
The film’s open-ended style means we can never predict what we’ll be seeing next, but it almost always compels our interest.
Though words can describe what “Hale County” shows, they really can’t convey how involving this visual symphony is. As much as anything else, the film is a tribute to the mystical power of the moving image, and to Ross’ keen and empathetic eye.
More than that, the act of putting this world on the big screen makes us pay attention to these lives and gives them the dignity and respect we realize they of course deserve.
‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica, Playhouse 7, Pasadena