“Black People Are Not in Control of Images of Ourselves”: An Interview With RaMell Ross

The director of Sundance standout Hale County This Morning, This Evening talks about finding lyricism where others only see despair


RaMell Ross’s magnificent documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening was the very first movie I saw at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Quite fitting, as it’s the kind of work that alters one’s perception of the world, and of cinema; it was hard not to think about this picture before and after every subsequent film I saw at the fest.

Hale County follows some years in the lives of two African-American teenagers — Quincy Bryant and Daniel Collins — living in small-town Alabama, in the heart of the Black Belt region of the U.S. But it does so in a way that foregrounds the beauty and transcendence in their lives, avoiding easy narratives of black poverty and despair. Here’s what I wrote in my review at the time: “By fragmenting our point-of-view, [Ross] draws our attention to what we can’t know. All too often, these longitudinal documentaries — movies that chart people’s lives over multiple years — have a kind of totalizing ambition. They pretend to novelistic thoroughness. But can a mere film contain and explain an entire human life? … Ross understands that it can’t, and he’s found a way to express that through form. He immerses us in this world, but then lets the mystery be.”

Hale County This Morning, This Evening will, I suspect, prove to be one of the standout titles of this entire year when all is said and done. I sat down with the director, who is also an acclaimed photographer, recently to talk about the uniquely immersive nature of his filmmaking process, and of the haunting, lyrical, bracing work that resulted.

You spent years making this film, and you lived in this community during that time. How did you wind up moving there?

I was freelancing photography and film in D.C. I left the city because rent was really oppressive. I went down to Alabama and taught a photography course for two weeks, and then I just fell in love with the place. So I spontaneously moved there — to teach, and to be in the community, and then simultaneously photograph.

I don’t believe necessarily in fate, but it almost seemed like it was a necessary step to advance my understanding of photography, and advance my understanding of myself in some way. When you’re there, there’s a certain amount of introspection that happens no matter what. It’s like if you go to the Arctic or go to the ocean, it forces you to think. And when it’s a place in the South, it’s more of a historical type of pondering. So, yeah, I was extremely happy immediately. It’s a dream to move to a small town and be present after having a really fast-paced city life.

Greensboro, Alabama, which is the county seat of Hale County, is the catfish capital of the country. When you drive across the landscape, you see cows grazing, but you see more catfish ponds. It’s just the local economy. There are maybe four catfish plants within a twenty-mile radius, and the majority of the people just work there, and it’s like almost a family thing. A lot of folks work there that didn’t graduate from high school. If you don’t have something you’re specifically interested in, like nursing or engineering, or construction or welding, then you go and you work at the plant. I think when I was in Greensboro, thirty out of the seventy students graduated from the senior class of the high school.

I think sixty to eighty percent of the people are on some sort of government support in Hale County. There’s not many resources, there’s a lot of poverty. And there’s only a certain amount of things you can do just based on the way in which you exist in the space. What are you going to aspire to be? An accountant? No. You’re going to aspire to be an athlete, or a musician, these pop culture things that come through on Instagram and Facebook…or you’re going to end up working at a factory.

When did you start to think about doing a film?

I’ve always wanted to make a film. But I’ve never felt like I could, or the ones that I did were music videos and, you know, just kind of fun projects. But I think it was in 2012. I was like, “I need to film these guys. I need to film this community. I need to start making moving images.”  The first images I made were of Quincy hanging out with his friends. I knew both Quincy and Daniel for three years before I started, and I asked, “Yo, Quincy, can I start filming? I have no idea what’s going to happen. I just want to be here with the camera.” And he said, “Obviously.” And then the same thing for Daniel.

At what point did you start to develop the idea of this film, with this particular aesthetic approach?

I made a cut of the film probably about six or seven months in, and it was very much a traditional documentary. Just really average shots and average voiceover. And in the same way that my photography developed, I was confronted with the failure of the film so far. Immediately: “This is really under-inspiring, and just fits into what everyone knows.” And I started to select single images that I thought in themselves said something magnificent about the place. And then it slowly developed from there as I gathered images. “Whoa, this image actually is really nice beside this one.” And then I thought, “Wait, what if I could just do the whole thing that way?” Which early on is a ridiculous thought, because of the amount of time it takes just to get one of those images. So, basically, I would try to film with them all day. I would want one shot or image a day. If I had one thing that I was happy with from eight hours of shooting, I was so happy.

That is the photographer’s process, right? You shoot and you shoot, and then you find that one image and you’re good?

Yeah. [Laughs] It’s also strange too because the large-format camera is a very specific way of looking at the world. It’s upside down and backwards, it’s really slow, it really requires finessing. So, there’s a relationship between the way in which I look through that camera and the way in which I look through the DSLR [digital video camera]. You’re not just like, “Oh, I got this.” You have to find the frame, and then you wait, and then when something happens in that frame, that’s what you use. It’s not just the frame itself, you know? And how the large-format camera relates to the film has to do with the patience of sitting in a frame — of making something and looking at it for a really long time, and then letting the activity happen within that. In most cases, you can’t just move into that frame; you’re already sitting on it and then it happens there.

When I first started, I didn’t know what I was looking for, and things would happen, and they would really move me, and they would stick with me, and then I’d think, “Oh, this is what I want.” So, then you sit longer, you’re more patient, you’re moving less. In my case, I would not put a frame in the film that I didn’t consider to be perfect in whatever way. And I’m willing to lose content to make a perfect frame, because that’s part of the form.

You follow some years in the lives of these kids. Did you always intend the project to stretch that long?

After I made that early cut, I knew that form was failing for me, and I made a cut of all of my favorite images; I related them based on color, and sunup and sundown, and it was pretty moving. I considered it like a trailer in some sense. And then through the process of looking at films and talking with people, I realized that a film could be something like this. “Whoa, what if I made a trailer of their lives? What does that look like in the long form?” Then I thought, “I’m just going to shoot forever! [Richard] Linklater did ten years. The Qatsi trilogy shot over thirty years or whatever. I’m a patient guy!” [Laughs]

I have cuts of the film that could exist as an installation. I mean, I filmed everything. I have way more people that you wouldn’t recognize in interesting situations as well, and it could be an even broader collage. But we very specifically wanted it to be categorized as a documentary — to use the currency of truth. Because if I was going to make this a fiction film, people would just go into it unconsciously, not thinking that this is the way that you look at people, or this is the way that life is. The degree in which it relates to actual perception would be different.

Hale County is rare in that it really makes the viewer think about how we frame these lives — and how we keep seeing these epic documentaries about black struggle and suffering. Which are not bad films necessarily.

They’re not bad films at all! And they’re great documents. When I look back [on some of those films], I’m like, “Thank you, we have this person’s life as a microcosm.”

But you do interrogate that kind of filmmaking, simply through your approach.

I think it stems from the construct of blackness, which is inaccurate, and frustrating, and the cause of a lot of historical and current trauma. I see some films functioning in the same way, but it’s also a human thing in that we do want to know. It’s an extension of the idea of prayer. We want to be fed information and believe, we want to have faith. We want to have heroes.

Was that idea of standing in contrast to this dominant mode of documentary filmmaking on your mind as you were working on this film, or did it come later?

Pretty much the entire time. And it happened after that first edit I made, because it was a huge failure, and I thought, “The only way to get out of this is to make something in which a person has to complete.” And when you’re forced to contend with something as historically burdened as the black community or the black image, the amount of completion truly determines your relationship to the community, and your relationship to media, and your relationship to narrative.

The film is also a process of me coming to understanding the way in which I deal with imagery and the way in which I deal with myself and my own people. I immediately realized that it was a Rorschach test. My early large-format photography kind of dealt with the plurality of truth — how different people would see images in different ways. If a guy was lying one way, one person might say, “Oh my god, he’s in so much pain.” Another guy would be like, “Oh, he’s just in the middle of a dance move. What do you mean he’s in pain?” It’s because you’ve only seen images of black people in pain.

Were there any points when you thought to yourself, “I shouldn’t be doing this”? Not just in terms of artistic doubt, but also because you are following these people’s lives and sometimes pretty bad things do happen to them.

I truly believed in my intent. The film ends up having multiple purposes, but the original intent was to make my Rushmore for these guys, and to make my Rushmore for the South. And I knew that it was going to take me being there for moments of extreme conflict and moments of strife, but there were a couple times where I felt it was a little painful because they were hard situations in their life. I filmed them. I had no intention of using those moments, but you never know if in that moment or in the middle of that moment or just after that moment, there’ll be something revelatory, and you want to be there for it. At no point did they tell me not to shoot. But in 2016, Daniel had got in an argument with his mother, and we were filming in the car, and he was like, “I don’t want to film anymore. This is not the story I wanted to tell.” Which was quite beautiful because Daniel has seen documentaries, and he wanted to be part of a project that elevated his life, not just repeated the tropes of black struggle. So, in that moment he felt like perhaps that would be used. And of course I was not going to use that. The next day he called me: “You ready? You ready to shoot?”

There’s a kind of symphonic structure to the film. Tell me about your thinking behind that.

The film is one of movements. It has five distinct musical sections. The way that music functions — you’re in it for the moment, only that moment. And it’s almost always transcendent, and then you leave, and what you remember is that feeling — not necessarily the words. I thought, “What would it be like to experience black imagery that way?” We have a really interesting relationship to music — jazz, blues, whatever. The “musicalness” of the film, the idea of a film of movements, was a way to get out of this traditional way of looking at story — which is just the arc in which the person is only the story, and that in turn becomes a totality. If you place them in a musical feeling, then the person is aligned with the universe in a way, and aligned with the stuff that moves us most.

For all the sublimity and idiosyncrasy of your approach, there’s also something very matter of fact about Hale County This Morning, This Evening. There’s no sense that you’re doing something ironic or counterintuitive here, or turning the tables on the traditional viewer. It’s all very organic. In the end, it’s just people living their lives, and there’s beauty in it. Completely outside of socioeconomic context, this is a life. And this is how we experience it. And yet, just by doing that, the film manages to be confrontational in a way.

Yeah. Because, you know, black people are not in control of images of ourselves. We’ve never been in control of images of ourselves. We’re like this close to like catching the tail of our representation; we’re not even there yet. And so, to do that is actually radical — because what you’re looking at is actually, like, just an up-close image of a black person. That’s all it is.