Hale County This Morning, This Evening RaMell Ross (USA: 2018;) Doc
Viewed: Metrograph NYC, 3rd March 2019; ticket $15
I woke up this morning…
The material of RaMell Ross’s film takes as its content the lives of the black community in Hale County, Alabama. As a documentary film maker he’s not an outsider to Hale County but lives and works there as a college teacher, giving courses on photography and training young Basketball players.
The title of Ross’s film, linking his location Hale County, with the phrase, ‘This Morning’ seems to point to the intention behind his decision to make this film. ‘This Morning’ is a phrase which reverberates with the mordant irony of ‘the Blues’ and the capacity of Blues music to locate the black American experience. “I woke up this morning, feeling round for my shoes…’ A music that locates the condition of black life in instability and insecurity. The blues are a psycho-somatic wail of defiance at the nature of black experience. A physical and an emotional expression of the unsayable as the voices and guitars of all blues performers insist on telling it how it is in the here and now, in music that transcends the here and now.
Time was when black people sang the blues. Not so much these days. Now, in terms of music, black expression is voiced by the attitude of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop and its various developed modes, incessant urban beat overscored by lyrics of assertion and self proclamation, declaring opposition in the face to the face of the white man. But perhaps there are limits to the extent that identity can be based on opposition, however necessary opposition may be. But the blues were always a sentient state, not self pitying, which expressed an actual black dilemma of being. The place that you were in. Where you were at. I woke up this morning…
Ross appears to be saying that he’s making his film in Hale County in the Evening of the black people in America. Perhaps for some there is opposition, but the blacks in Hale County Alabama come across more as a disoriented people. A people increasingly not just cut off from any hope of renewal but increasingly cut off from themselves, both in body and in mind. In this evening of the ‘blues’ they have mutated into a life style that alienates them from themselves. A people destroyed by the twisted commercialised individualistic social culture onto which they have been grafted.
The form Ross chooses for his film is intercut strips of action. Strips of action comprising, mostly single long durational shots, both discrete and sequenced chronologically, descriptive openings into the lives of the Hale people. The clips stand for themselves, without commentary, accompanied only by their own discrete sound.
The diachronic filming documents episodes in the lives of Ross’ subjects which include a young married couple having twins, and a young guy at college on a basket ball scholarship. Both these subjects have an intermittent narrative, but it is not story that impresses but the scenes, the moments which the dynamic of Ross’ camera work folds into his sequences. The scenes Ross captures point in different ways to the idea of the dislocation of his subjects.
Item one: captured in one clip, in which we see the young black woman giving birth to her twins. As the shot opens we see that a capacious tent like structure has been erected over the woman’s loins as she gives birth. As the hospital technicians aid the birth, they are shielded off from presence of the woman by this tent like structure. From the point of view of the birth technicians, she is absent from the birth. Perhaps this is normal American practice. Immediately after the delivery of the first of her twins, Ross’ camera pans to the other side of the tent, to film the mother. At this point we see that not only is the woman heavily sedated, but that where her neck meets her chest, another huge screen has been hung, so she is completely disconnected, in body in mind, from the act of giving birth. This mother has been totally disembodied, delivered into a state of disengagement with life.
Item two: the young basket ball player with the college basketball scholarship. We hear him talk about his hopes for the future, his yearning for success. We see the psychic fixation that drives his endless practice, the unending repetitions of the same moves. And through these strips of action Ross conveys the idea of a youth who has given his body over, sold his body to a sports dream. It feels like containment; the whole of the youth’s life queezed into a little box called sport (basketball). An impoverishment of a being who for want of anything else has embraced the chimera of athletic success. And when this chimera reveals itself for what it is, there will be nothing to take its place. No social matrix, not community, only a vacuum of being, a disenfranchised soul, ever more detached from life.
The woman, the boy, both seem trapped in a psycho-social machine that drains them of life and vitality, leaves them few resources to cope with the demands of survival in a society in which they are the underclass.
This detachment is what Moss films. Detachment from the being, the detachment of children from parents. Some of Moss’ most disturbing strips are shots of manically disoriented children desperately seeking attention from parents who are not there for them. In the evening of their enslavement, they are an abandoned and abandoning people.
It might be said that Ross depicts a distorted picture of the black community in Hale County. But he is not an outsider, just the opposite. As a teacher and basketball coach to young black kids, he is up close to what he has filmed and in a position to witness and come to a judgement about what he witnesses. I think we have to allow that Moss has seen something in the world about him and has made a report about what he has seen. What he has seen is that there are no blues now for Mr Charlie, no blues, no waking up in the morning, only slow descent into the twilight of being.