A Cut in Time: RaMell Ross, Joslyn Barnes and Maya Krinsky Break Down a Scene from Hale County This Morning, This Evening
“The discovering began after I moved to Alabama in 2009 to teach photography and coach basketball. Photographing in my day-to-day, I began filming using time to figure out how we’ve come to be seen.”
— RaMell Ross, Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Hale County This Morning, This Evening defies easy summary. It’s an ontological inquiry: a pushback against dominant narratives of what it means to be black in the historic South, an invitation to the African American diaspora to return to its roots and participate in the reimaging of blackness. It’s also a poetic exaltation of two young men living in Alabama’s Black Belt—a collaborative, impressionistic portrait composed of interstitial moments experienced, witnessed and participated in by the filmmaker over the course of five years.
Who I spoke with
RaMell Ross directed, filmed, produced, wrote and edited Hale County This Morning, This Evening, which is his feature debut. I also spoke with one of the film’s producers and member of the edit team, Joslyn Barnes (Strong Island, Zama), and Maya Krinsky, the film’s cowriter and another member of the edit team.
What the scene is
Ross: It’s really early in the morning. You drive through this empty town. If you look closely, you see on the left-hand side of the street a white woman walking, and on the right-hand side of the street you see a black guy walking. You’re a little nostalgic for the view, or for something, and then you take this really hard turn into this big antebellum home. It cuts to what the driver wouldn’t see… which is a guy walking, or [who] you hear walking, which is me, of course. Then, we’re walking, Bert Williams is walking—he’s a guy seemingly in blackface, and [the footage is] in black and white with this really rich texture. He’s looking at the people driving up to the house. He’s smiling because he senses that this is an abnormal visit. We’re driving to the house, and there’s a guy holding a tire, and he’s just happily burning shit. It cuts to the smoke going up, which is obviously the detritus going into the atmosphere being like part of the air that we breathe. Bert Williams is, like, “What? Finally, someone burned down my house.”
Like most works of nonfiction filmmaking, Hale County This Morning, This Evening’s preproduction process was organic, evolving out of Ross’s experience living, working and taking pictures in Greensboro, Alabama, over a period of time. Ross moved to Alabama’s Black Belt in 2009 to teach photography and coach basketball. Though he met his protagonists, Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, shortly thereafter, three years would pass before Ross began filming. Ross spent the first three years using his camera, not as a means of documenting the “truth” of a place from which to build, but as a way to dismantle, challenge and interrogate his own way of seeing it. To guide the production, Ross wrote a manifesto:
1E – to exalt the lives of Daniel and Quincy
2D – to centralize my new community in documentary’s language of truth
3C – to offer an experience of the historic South
4B – to instantiate a way of looking
5A – to chart the visual story of Blackness
1E – approach film as monument
2D – participate, not capture; shoot from not at
3C – composite a form that is the experiential interplay of time, memory and meaning
4B – develop Observational Logic—use camera as an extension of consciousness
5A – employ Blackness as content, with interstitial moments and unsuitcased images
“I had a very specific idea for what the film looked like,” he says. “I knew exactly how I wanted it to be associative. I knew how I wanted it to feel, but at the same time, I’m not naive enough to think I know what’s best even for my own ideas.” Producer Joslyn Barnes, who has, of late, worked on a number of films that deal directly with questions of how we see and how we learn to see, joined the project, helping to refine the form further so as to best accomplish Ross’s goals and create a potent counter-narrative. “From the beginning, when we talked about the film, we wanted to avoid a narrative arc. And especially, we wanted to offer an alternative to the struggle narrative,” which places upon its protagonists the burden of success or failure as the conclusive goal a film is working toward. “We just wanted to take that pressure off the film,” Barnes continues, “so that we could foreground the environment and people in relationship to their own community.” What emerged was far more poetic in form, asserting its narrative resistance by privileging fragmentary moments of everyday life in Hale County, both momentous and mundane, for the protagonists and as experienced from Ross’s viewpoint and strung together into orchestral movements rather than as a cause/effect linear structure. “It’s kind of interesting to create a film that’s composed primarily of interstitial moments and invite the audience to enter the space of Hale County,” Barnes says, “and yet, at the same time, offer something completely new” in an effort to “help people see this place in a different way.”
The antebellum home, where this scene is set, provides a potent juxtaposition of past imaginations of the South with current environmental and life circumstances Ross seeks to foreground. In her description of the place, Barnes points to the bizarre layering of history that bumps up so abruptly against the present day in the landscape of Hale County, often in ways that can render the legacy of slavery and exploitation invisible:
“Having been to Hale County, it’s interesting when you’re in this town to see, here you are on Main Street, and then right off the road is a plantation house. The plantation house is carefully maintained. Behind it are our authentic slave quarters that are crumbling, and they’re not allowed to tear them down because they’re a part of the history, yet they’re allowed to decay, which is both good and bad. In some places, these places have been turned into places where people go for weddings and spas, whatever. To me, it’s like having a wedding at Auschwitz. I don’t understand it.”
Having spent three years in Hale County getting to know the place and its people, Ross transitioned from photographing his day-to-day to filming it with the intention of, as Ross puts it, “exalting the lives of Daniel and Quincy,” telling their stories by “looking closely at vast stretches of their lives” over the course of an extended period of time. When describing this conceit, Ross’s use of the word “exalt” rather than “tell” or “narrate” is deliberate—a choice that recalls the collaborative book by Walker Evans and James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1936), which documents the daily lives of poor white sharecropping families during the Great Depression in the very same Hale County, Alabama. Agee’s hyperdescriptive prose-poetry about everything from fried eggs to bridal hats monumentalized the ordinary into the sacred, transcendental beauty undergirding the human experience. More than 70 years later, Ross writes, “Hale County is a different place. While the current residents subsist with comparable economic hardship, the racial demographics of the region have shifted. These forgotten, isolated, famous men in Hale County are now people of color.”
As the lead editor of the film, Ross would take the impressionistic footage he had accumulated and weave it together, bit-by-bit, into associative montages. Every couple of weeks, the edit team—Barnes, Maya Krinsky, and Robb Moss—would travel to Hale County to meet with Ross and go through the most recent edits, offering feedback as they closely examined the images and interpreted their pairings over the course of three or four days. “Then, RaMell would continue working for a couple weeks, and we would come back again,” Barnes explains. “We would just keep convening and interrogating and raising different questions and constructing first an assemblage, and then really refining and sculpting it.” When constructing the antebellum home scene, Barnes recalls “visiting the actual house in person and asking Ross how he felt being there.” It was after visiting the location in person, where the history of the African American experience in the South intersected so clearly with the present, that Barnes felt intercutting archival footage of Bert Williams could work well as a way to draw attention to the history of black representation in cinema, while also serving as a point of contrast to the portrait of blackness Ross was presenting to the audience.
Cowriter Maya Krinsky describes the postproduction process, where images were being arranged and rearranged, as being guided by a “kind of collective interpretation.” As an artist whose work focuses on language and translation, Krinsky came to understand “writing as the process of collective interpretation.” Looking at these new arrangements of images Ross would put forward, these collective interpretations would “generate new readings and new ideas,” Krinsky explains, “which would then kind of come back into how we would think about various scenes or people or parts of the sound.” While Ross had created the “grammar” of the film through its form, imagery, and associative interstices, “we were all really engaged in trying to [solve] the puzzle of how to edit this,” says Barnes.
Part of the key that unlocked the puzzle was finding the archival footage of Bert Williams, which Ross was reticent to include at first. In fact, when Ross first happened upon the never-before-seen footage from Lime Kiln Field Day (1913), an unreleased Bert Williams project, he wasn’t even considering it for Hale County. “I was really against using archival footage,” Ross explains, “but Rajendra Roy, the chief film curator at MoMA, approached me a couple years ago and said he had some old footage that hadn’t been seen. At the time, I was just looking at it as an artist. Then, this moment came about in the film,” when Bert Williams, a black actor performing in blackface, abruptly drops his mask, his performative facial expressions falling back into those of his normal, everyday being, as he looks straight into the camera. Ross shared this moment of B-roll captured between takes in the archival footage with Barnes. “She became more of an advocate” for its inclusion, encouraging “us to continue to thinking about its use further in the film because I was a little hesitant,” Ross admits. “We think it kind of fit,” he continues, “but then it just took being placed in the right spot and then tinkering with the timing. It’s easier for things not to work than for things to work for everything. Things aren’t supposed to work, in fact.” They had arrived at the drive up to the antebellum house during an earlier edit, as Krinsky recalls. “I remember looking at the smoke in the fire scene and talking about the way we hear RaMell’s voice in it” and “its metaphoric potential” when paired with the footage of the plantation house—because the tire was burned on a different plot of land. Once these particular images had been sequenced, the edit team collectively decided to intercut the Bert Williams footage into the scene.
Intercutting the archival footage has a tremendous impact on the viewer. It stands out not only because of the jarring switch from dynamic color to shaky black-and-white, but also because it is the one instance of continuity-style editing in the whole film. From the audience’s perspective, Bert Williams, peeking in on you from the past, watches as you walk onto the grounds of the plantation house of the present. “The continuity is showing the layers of history and culture,” explains Krinsky. “In present-day reality, places are layered, and the continuity editing helps make those layers visible. For me, Bert Williams is looking in on the present. He’s both a ghost of the past and a ghost of cinema’s past.” Barnes uses similar terms when describing the sequence, calling the inclusion of B-roll “an interruption” in the film’s flow to make way for “a visit from history.”
Another defining characteristic of this scene is the presence of Ross’s voice. It’s the first time we hear a full exchange between Ross and a member of the Hale County community, one of the film’s many “collaborators,” as Barnes calls them. “My voice was intentionally recorded” during the exchange, Ross tells me, “but I didn’t immediately know where it would be placed in the film or its intention in the film.” In many ways, Ross’s voice signals the radically subjective perspective through which we, as audience members, are experiencing Hale County, as well as the participatory nature of the film: Just as Ross participates in the lives of the people he films, participates in the reimagining of blackness, Hale County This Morning, This Evening invites its audience to participate in their own re-imaging. For example, part of the final editing process involved processing and addressing audience feedback. “By the time we got to the final cuts,” Barnes explains, “we had a number of very structured screenings for different kinds of people, people who had never seen the film, people who knew about the film, people who were from different backgrounds, different classes and so forth, just to see what their reaction was to the film. We had some wonderful people offer feedback during that time.” Ross’s emotional engagement with the place and its people, and the community’s willingness to collaborate in the making of Hale County This Morning, This Evening, can be heard clearly in this exchange, but it’s something that took years and years to establish. “People opened their lives to his presence and his participation because they trusted him,” says Barnes, “and you can hear that in [RaMell’s] voice. Here and there, you hear people mention his name or call out to him. But in this moment, in this beautiful scene, he talks to this man… right behind the plantation house” about why he’s filming: “Because it’s beautiful.”