Historically, the Best Documentary category at the Oscars has been a shitshow. Certainly, there have been worthy and enduring winners and nominees—Peter Watkins’s hair-raising anti-nuke screed The War Game, Barbara Kopple’s potently politicized strike chronicle Harlan County, USA, Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow’s epic O.J.: Made in America—but the losers and outright omissions paint a more compelling picture of nonfiction cinema over the decades. There were no statues for the vérité innovations of the Maysles and Frederick Wiseman, the bold incursions of Marlon Riggs and Jennie Livingston, memento mori masterpieces like The Sorrow and the Pity and Shoah, hybrid experiments like The Act of Killing and Leviathan.
Shifting rules about eligibility and nominating committees have surely contributed to the sense of institutional failure; sometimes, as in the case of Steve James’s Hoop Dreams or Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, the snubs are simply a matter of inexplicably putrid taste. In general, though, it seems that the implicitly populist mandate of the Oscars—which inflects (or infects) its choices across the board—clashes most strongly with a discipline that, at its best, is devoted to peeling away layers of escapism.
All of which is why it would be exciting—and even exhilarating—to see the 2019 Best Documentary Oscar go to RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening—by no means the favorite heading into Sunday’s ceremony but the kind of dark horse worth pulling for all the same. In a surprisingly strong category that also includes the perilously embedded reportage of Of Fathers and Sons, the high-profile character study of RBG, and the kinetic rock-climbing footage of Free Solo, both Hale County and Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap represent a more consciously poetic approach to documentary filmmaking. Both are excellent, but as Minding the Gap has already been advocated for at The Ringer—here, here, and here, for those keeping track—it’s on me to make the case for Ross’s extraordinarily realized film, which takes a boldly impressionistic approach to community portraiture.
“The discovering began in 2009 after I moved to Alabama to teach photography and coach basketball” reads the white-on-black intertitle that opens Hale County. These words provide us with just enough time-and-place context and authorial backstory—i.e., that Ross is a photographer and, initially, an outsider in the titular locale—to give us a sense of what we’re about to watch. The first image is equally eloquent, in a more oblique way. We’re in the back seat of a car, gazing first through the windshield and then out of the door opened by one of its inhabitants: an African American man who steps out and motions to close it before leaving it ajar, flashing an ambivalent expression at the camera.
In the moment, there’s probably no way that Ross could have known that this interlude would turn out to be the anchor point of his film’s yearslong process of “discovering.” As an editing room intervention, however, it’s brilliant. It’s an invitation to tag along, encoded with both a sense of distance and the suggestion that at any time, we could be shut out. We’re there to observe and listen, but only as passengers. That may seem like a lot of analysis for a handheld shot lasting barely five seconds, but one of the by-products of Ross’s slipstream aesthetic is that the swifter the editing, the deeper whatever is being shown burns into the mind’s eye. Nearly everything we see over the course of Hale County’s 76 minutes is somehow concrete and elusive within the same restless, agile frame.
In an interview with Film Comment’s Eric Hynes, Ross talked about both the process of shooting Hale County and his desire to cultivate a distinctive aesthetic that would not just support the immersive aspect of the project—the idea of shooting on the fly without a clear end point—but generate a genuinely novel formal structure as well. (The credits thank Thai master filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a creative consultant.) “I look at films like Tree of Life,” explained Ross, “and I’m like—no one would ever give a black filmmaker X millions of dollars to do something that no one understands what he’s doing. It just doesn’t exist. But I was like, all right, I’m going to leverage my entire life to just be part of this world and continue to be friends and make this film, and chisel the shit out of something.”
Hale County, Alabama, has the dubious honor of being named after the Confederate officer Stephen F. Hale. It was also featured in a towering work of 20th-century photojournalism: James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which used the town as a backdrop to display (and critique) different forms of social, economic, and political inequality and disenfranchisement during the Great Depression. Agee and Evans’s title was steeped in savage irony, implying that the Americans rendered nameless, faceless, and jobless were nobler and more vital subjects of study than the architects whose structures collapsed all around them. Without betraying any direct influence—or a comparable sense of self-regard—Ross’s film takes up a similar mantle for Hale’s 21st-century residents, whose own hardships are derived from, if not fully defined by, the state’s history of Jim Crow segregation laws and striations of wealth, class, and race that extend beyond Alabama’s borders.
To return to Ross’s stated intention of “discovering,” the tension in Hale County This Morning, This Evening lies between the things we might expect to see in a movie with this basic setup and what the documentarian shows us—and also in the ways he reframes “our” expectations. “What does it mean to frame someone?” reads another one of the director’s title cards, a question that ostensibly has to do with camera placement—the entwined considerations of literal and physical distance to the subject guiding documentary filmmaking since its compromised ethnographic origins—but the unstated answer could easily be “what does it mean to watch someone?” In a superb appreciation of Hale County for Reverse Shot, Tayler Montague dove into this line of thinking, citing the moment when Ross intersperses a black-and-white clip of the Bahamian vaudeville entertainer Bert Williams—described by W.C. Fields as “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew”—looking directly into the camera wearing blackface. It’s a digression that’s also an act of confrontation. “[Ross],” Montague writes, “has noted that the scene is intended to remind us of the origins of Black representation in cinema. For me, a Black viewer, the moment felt unnecessary. But then it dawned on me: maybe I wasn’t necessarily the audience for that particular scene.”
I can’t possibly improve on the substance or expression of Montague’s point, so I’ll just echo it. As a white viewer, I felt Williams’s cameo was absolutely directed at me, asking me to consider who I am when I’m watching a movie featuring black subjects and how I’ve been conditioned to experience these kinds of stories. The narrative of Hale County, such as it is, hinges on the basketball aspirations of high school student Daniel, who emerges as one of several protagonists alongside his mother Mary and her coworker Quincy, himself a former hoops star. Daniel’s practices, games, and locker room camaraderie are a constant presence in Ross’s assemblage. There are low-angled shots of a basketball hoop framed like the monolith in 2001 against the night sky and a mesmerizing single-take sequence where the young guard drains a series of jumpers with the camera seemingly yoked to his shoulders, following him around the top of the key long enough for him to finally clank one, regain his form, and sink the money ball. It’s compelling stuff, and “familiar” in a way that Ross, who harbored hoop dreams of his own, recognizes, exploits, and critiques. To attempt to reduce something as sprawling and atomized as Hale County to a “sports” documentary is to be seduced (possibly like Daniel himself) by representations that position such aspirations as existing above—or as an “escape” from—an everyday life not covered in glory or triumph.
At the same time that Hale County’s collage style helps the film avoid becoming a Southern variation on Hoop Dreams, it refuses to lapse into anything resembling hand-wringing melancholy. There are instances of sadness in the film, but they’re not emphasized any more than corresponding passages of joy or boredom. This equanimity derives from Ross’s reluctance to sentimentalize his material.
An argument could be made that Hale County’s lyricism—serene, gliding images of fields and skies; ambient sound design; slightly stylized language of its inter-titles—is an attempt to “beautify” its milieu. The question of “aestheticizing” reality is both urgent and jerry-rigged: Show me a documentary—even one by Fred Wiseman at his most ostensibly fly-on-the-wall transparent—that doesn’t reveal an entire constellation of aesthetic choices and I’ll tell you you’re watching it wrong. Hale County foregrounds its style, to be sure, but I’d say that Ross extracts rather than imposes beauty from what he’s shooting. And his conception of beauty is elastic enough to encompass everything from children at play to layup lines to a live birth to a memorial service (glimpsed, again, at a respectful distance) without ever telling us how to feel. Instead, he gives us space to feel while also pushing us to keep pace with the visual, aural, and metaphorical rhymes built into his editing scheme. It’s not just about watching (and listening) carefully; it’s about taking the invitation of that open door in the first shot seriously.
It might be wishful thinking that a movie as principled and ambitious as Hale County could win an Academy Award. Still, its inclusion as a nominee means that more people than could have ever been expected will discover Ross’s act of “discovering.” Even if it’s just a crack, the door is open.