Children play with a battery light. A plane falls from the sky behind a toddler’s blurry eyes. A group of grown men make shadows with a Chick-fil-A waffle fry. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is grace through the eyes of RaMell Ross, a basketball-star-turned-photographer-turned-filmmaker debuting his first feature-length film. With the support of veterans Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Laura Poitras and Danny Glover, this feature documentary is set to establish Ross as a poetic luminary. It’s a film too real to be written. It was lived and continues to be lived in Alabama every day.
Ross presents an intimate perspective of basketball, and moreso the African-American experience as a whole, that finds grace in every frame. The high school locker room is the conclave, the gym is the proscenium. Perspiration speckles the floor below an off-screen ball dribbler, a camera locks in on the shoulders of a young man sweating through jump-shots (remarkable for the handheld camerawork alone), a long static shot captures locker room choreography that a narrative film could never recreate. As my friend Taia Kwinter wrote in Aperture’s coverage of the director’s photographic portfolio, “physical history turns metaphoric, and the psychological and emotional intricacies of identity and heritage become manifest”.
“…evidence that grace cannot be manufactured…”
Ross played basketball at Georgetown and subsequently in Ireland where he also served as Program Director for a non-profit. After leaving basketball, he entered politics and worked in Colin Powell’s office. At some point he began taking photographs and was discovered by ESPN, giving him the confidence to work with large-format cameras and return to school to develop his practice. The film extends from his photographic work, which deals largely with the relationship between the American South and the African-American body.
In a feature on his photography in the New York Times’ Lens Blog, Ross writes: “I daydream about a postmodern South, of melanin liberation and a less profit-centered humanity.” Yet at the same time, he finds himself grappling with the inescapable past, or, “stuck in Aunt Jemima’s syrup”. His work finds evidence of both past and future within the quotidian details of his surrounding community, constructing confident poetry from a trove of photographic, academic, and political experience.
“…documentary is set to establish Ross as a poetic luminary.”
Ross has a preternatural talent for capturing moments, souls and unorthodox time-lapses. Every shot seems to maximize the cinematographic potential of the scene through dexterous camerawork, while excellent sound collaging matches the scattered but chain-linked visuals. This is a man overflowing with vision. In fact, at one point you can actually hear him off-screen explaining his vision of the sun gleaming through the smoke of a tire fire to a curious host.
Ross similarly understands the correlation between proximity and intimacy – his camera often within inches of his subjects. He captures scenes only accessible to a one-man-crew trusted unconditionally by his subjects: childbirth, glossolalia, baptisms. The film is evidence that grace cannot be manufactured, it arises from devotion and empathy. Perhaps a baptismal dunk is not unlike a one-handed tomahawk slam: each imbued with a devotional spirit shared within communal passions. The basketball court serves as church for so many young people, it might as well be treated as such. Ross explained to Filmmaker Magazine, “How else can you translate the holiness of this region?”
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) Produced by Joslyn Barnes and Su Kim. Directed by RaMell Ross. Written by RaMell Ross and Maya Krinsky. Featuring Daniel Collins & Quincy Bryant. Hale County This Morning, This Evening played in the U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance 2018.
9 out of 10 Oscars