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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Hale County’: an indelible American portrat

One of the five Oscar-nominated documentary features, "Hale County This Morning, This Evening," played in Spokane for a single night (at the Magic Lantern). I missed that screening, but I was able to catch the film because it is streaming through iTunes. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In the summer of 1936, the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans descended upon Hale County, Alabama, a rural area that sits in the west-central part of that Deep-South state.

Working on a magazine article, the two spent weeks documenting the experiences of three tenant-farmer families. And while the article was never published – seems the magazine editors wanted something a bit less poetic than what Agee gave them – the material he and Evans collected eventually became the 1941 book that bears the famously literary title “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

Eight decades later, Hale County has a far different look. But the feel – that of people living on the fringes of the American dream – remains the same. We know this because of a documentary feature titled – in the literary fashion of James Agee – “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.”

Directed by RaMell Ross, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” was shot over a five-year period. As a teacher and basketball coach, Ross – also an accomplished photographer – came to know both the community and its residents who these days, as opposed to the era in which Agee and Evans visited, are almost exclusively African-American.

And Ross does something unique. Instead of creating a narrative, one built around a storyline about the respective life-struggles of certain characters, he works to capture life as Hale County residents experience it daily, framing his film in sequences that often are starkly different.

One minute we may be watching a young boy, little more than a toddler, running from one room to the next. Then we may cut to a pair of young men standing in a yard, bracing themselves against the wind emanating from an approaching thunderstorm.

We may find ourselves viewing the county’s landscape from a moving car, both moving through a town filled with people on sidewalks apparently expecting a parade, and passing by field after field filled with cotton plants ripe for the picking.

We may see boys riding past on horseback or uniformed girls chanting cheers at a basketball game, glimpses of a solar eclipse, men and women moving furniture into a second-floor apartment, boys lounging in a locker room and even a woman chastising a little girl too shy to say her own name.

Ross doesn’t completely avoid introducing us to the characters whose life he is documenting. We do meet Daniel, a boy looking to play basketball for nearby Selma University. And we meet Quincy and Boosie, a young couple parenting their precocious young son Kyrie while facing the prospect of Boosie’s delivering a set of twins.

But “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” which was nominated for an Oscar, is no “Hoop Dreams”-type saga of triumph over adversity. Split into chapters bearing on-screen questions such as “What is the orbit of our dreaming,” Ross’ film is merely an artistic glimpse of a life, and a community, that most of us will never see firsthand, but a life put in a perspective that we can all understand: sometimes joyous, sometimes mundane and sometimes utterly, utterly sad.