When Billie Holiday’s lilting version of the romantic ballad Stars Fell on Alabama slips in under the end credits of Hale County This Morning, This Evening, it seems an odd choice. How does a mid-20th-century icon of dissolute urban coolness relate to off-the-grid black lives in the present-day rural South? In just a few seconds, though, the viewer conjures a slew of associations: the Alabama connection; the themes of ephemeral longing and eternal loss; and, inevitably, Billie’s rendition of the lynching lament Strange Fruit.
By this point, RaMell Ross’s gorgeously impressionistic documentary has spent 70-odd minutes encouraging us to find our own meanings. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (beginning Friday, Nov. 23 at the Roxie, with Ross and executive producer Danny Glover in the house after the opening night show) is a vaguely longitudinal saga of two young men, a determined college basketball player and a less motivated father, filmed in the years after the photographer-cum-filmmaker moved to Alabama. But its heart beats closer to experimental filmmaking than to dramatic narrative or social-issue exposé. Ross’s real subjects are the nature of time and the illusion of movement: Reality is sped up and slowed down via time-lapse photography and long takes, while all activity seems grounded (fixed in place, that is) by a thick air of stasis.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening does embody a political point of view in that it wants us to see black people through a prism that upends the usual framing. The athlete, Daniel, isn’t a naïve hoop dreamer, while Quincy, the easygoing father, isn’t on his way to jail or deadbeat dad-dom. Nonetheless, “What is the orbit of our dreaming?” is the film’s initial onscreen question (and erstwhile chapter heading), foregrounding the modesty of Daniel, Quincy and everyone else’s aspirations and opportunities.
One doesn’t take away a philosophy from Hale County so much as memories of cryptic, haunting images. Sunlight refracting through the smoke of a burning tire, a little girl relentlessly running back and forth while her oblivious father watches TV, a nocturnal amateur bluesman in a red coat and hat delivering the raw essence. And a patient, perfectly composed shot looking up through a basketball rim at the crystalline nighttime sky, as if waiting for stars to miraculously drop through the basket onto us.