When Toni Morrison began writing fiction, she has said that she immediately felt it was imperative to assert her “sovereignty and authority as a racialized person” because there were so “many books, particularly then… you could feel the address of the narrator over my shoulder — talking to somebody else — talking to somebody white.” Morrison’s goal at the time was to break from writing and conceptualizing art from an endemically white perspective, and instead to enter into that “free space opened up by refusing to respond every minute to… somebody else’s gaze.” In interviews, she has recounted how she was often chastised for this approach:
“I remember a review of ‘Sula’ in which the reviewer said this is all well and good, but one day, she– meaning me — will have to face up to the real responsibility and get mature, and write about the real confrontation for black people, which is white people. As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”
When considering the new documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Morrison’s words are helpful to keep in mind, as director RaMell Ross seems to share an abiding ideological communion with Morrison’s desire to explore black lives in all of their complexity, depth and meaning — without indulging anyone else’s gaze.
Following two young black men (Daniel and Quincy) in rural Hale County, Alabama, Hale County This Morning, This Evening is an impressionistic portrait of black life in the South; an associative collection of many beautiful moments of black joy and pain, presented free from any sort of representational frame of how viewers are supposed to be viewing these things. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is as much about what viewers see on the screen as about how one sees it, and — from the very start — Ross lets the audience know that his film will be an exploration of black life and how it is portrayed on screen, stating clearly in an intertitle that he is seeking to “figure out how we came to be seen.”
Seemingly fertile ground for exploring the anxieties around self-presentation through film and photography, Hale County, Alabama was the site and subject of James Agee and Walker Evans’ now classic Depression era document of impoverished white sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). The book was revelatory, and its portrayal of the grinding poverty that ate at the souls and bodies of the tenant farmers in its pages was unseen in print at the time. The book’s title, drawn from Ecclesiasticus 44:1, was meant to be ironic, as the men Agee and Evans were spotlighting were far from famous but instead occupied the lowest tier of American society: marginalized, forgotten and cast down into a bitter destitution.
Like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men before it, Hale County This Morning, This Evening is also working towards developing a framework to ethically document the daily lives of the inhabitants of the region, though in a much different way. Where Agee indulged in what has been called a methodology of “morally indignant anthropology,” a posture meant to shock audiences with the brutal reality of poverty, Ross is not interested in such didacticism. There is no call from Ross to pity the subjects of his film, and there is no sense that he is in any way an interloper in the community he is documenting. The images he presents of Hale County and its inhabitants simply are, and they make no argument or apology for their presence.
An achingly beautiful and oneiric collection of fragments, the film is intentionally structured so as to be completely without moral judgment when it comes to the decisions its subjects make. Outlining the reasoning behind this methodology in interviews, Ross has stated that by “fractioning Daniel and Quincy’s narratives, concentrating only on the beautiful, spontaneous moments, you don’t have a chance to judge them — aside from the way in which you would judge a black person because they’re black. Therefore, the way you respond to the film is you, it’s not the film.”
Ross clearly has an advanced understanding of the politics of form and image, and in fractioning the narratives of his subjects and presenting his images in the way that he does, he is consciously rebelling against narrative frames writ large. Ross doesn’t feel the need to bend his film to fit any particular narrative arc about black life. He is instead trying valiantly to fracture the normative discourse around images of black people, and the historical and emotional inferences we bring to them. He accomplishes this in a practical sense through the ambiguity of the images he presents. The editing of Hale County This Morning, This Evening is so elliptical that the film feels more akin to a collage of fleeting moments flickering in and out of the field of vision than a normal narrative documentary film — a fight in a locker room, smoke rising into the air, a man playing basketball, a young girl having her hair braided, falling sweat that is edited to morph into raindrops. Ross’s ephemeral and associative style of imagemaking has the effect of making his subjects feel untethered from reality, as if his images are somehow floating and de-historicized.
Shorn from their full and proper context, the images of black life Ross presents appear abstracted, radiating ambiguity and a feeling of dangling incompleteness. One may feel that the viewer is even meant to fill in the empty spaces, silences and gaps where narrative understanding breaks down in the film. Ever attentive to what it means to frame his subjects, Ross passes the responsibility of making meaning out of many of the images he presents on screen entirely to the viewer in what could be read as the ultimate aesthetic rebuke of filmic didacticism.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening is without question one of the most radical revisions of the documentary form in modern memory, and there is a fascinatingly performative aspect to the filmmaking that sees the aesthetic techniques Ross employs (fragmented storytelling, elliptical editing) as totally inseparable from his intent to present black lives on screen in an ethical and nonjudgmental manner. With the near total refusal on Ross’s part to tell viewers how to think or feel about the images, it’s as if he has quite simply declined to fully frame his images for the audience. This approach should not be read as merely an empty aesthetic exercise, but should instead be recognized for what it is as a deeply considered political gesture.
While it is primarily a document of the lives of Daniel and Quincy, Hale County This Morning, This Evening is also very much a commentary on the way films (and the normative system of imagemaking more broadly) are complicit in constructing and reifying black identities, and Ross’s critique of this system is deeply embedded in the formal elements of his film. A photographer by training, he is someone who thinks critically about images, particularly when it comes to their power to interpellate black subjects. Explicating a family photo of his mother for the website of the Walker Art Center, Ross writes that “The American stranger knows Blackness as a fact — even though it is fiction — albeit a flexible fact applied in consultation to their personal relationship to Blackness…. Framed Black, everything from the welcome of my mother’s face to the bend of her resting elbow is cast in infinite silhouette, backlit by history… Here, photography reinforces the unconsciousness racism of the viewer, reinstating the norms of our society.”
Being “Framed Black,” as Ross terms it, is precisely what he avoids inflicting on his subjects in Hale County This Morning, This Evening, and the aesthetic decisions he makes can be read as attempts to thoroughly delink images of black people from the hegemonic visual regime that has historically served only to reinscribe a relationship of dominance towards them.
Betraying his anxiety about the need to present black lives on film in an ethical manner, another of the intertitles in Hale County This Morning, This Evening reads, “How do we not frame someone?” Ross’s film itself feels like an attempt to answer that question, by creating a genuinely new type of documentary, one that can comfortably contain a multitudinous black subjectivity because of its consummate refusal to judge its subjects.
In one extraordinary sequence — made all the more poignant for being the only scene in the film to feature archival material — Ross inserts footage of black actor Bert Williams — painted in blackface pp from the 1913 silent film Lime Kiln Club Field Day. Thought to be the first film ever made with an all-black cast, this footage is immensely powerful in the context of the questions Hale County This Morning, This Evening is raising about black representation on screen. The image of a black man in blackface, donning a mask mimicking his own flesh, while performing a pantomime of racial stereotypes in order to frame himself more “legibly” for white audiences is the total embodiment everything Ross has built Hale County This Morning, This Evening to reject.
The tangled thicket of political, ethical and aesthetic questions around black filmic representation that Ross raises are difficult to unravel, to be sure, but what is most thrilling about Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the sense that he is actually succeeding. With his fragmented and sprawling film, it feels as if Ross is truly making his art in what Toni Morrison called the “free space,” that zone of being where it is unnecessary to incessantly respond the demands and attendant prejudices of “somebody else’s gaze.” Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a cinema of living and breathing freedom: a poetry in light and sound that is bridling at the constraints of the very documentary form itself.
Brian Raven Ehrenpreis (@brianrav3n) is a writer and critic based in New York City.