A thought occurred to me while compiling the powerpoint to launch ‘sensory cinema’, this year’s edition of Cinema Cent Ans de Jeunesse: the clips we get to choose from just aren’t very diverse in their representations. Which led me further, to Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight, in which a character remarks that ‘black skin, in Moonlight, looks blue’, and from there, to Ramell Ross’s extraordinary documentary Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, a title that both says exactly what the film is about (Hale County is in Alabama), and signals that like the title, this film isn’t like other films.
Ross is an African-American photographer, and he takes a photographer’s eye not so much to the people and places of Hale County, but to its textures and sounds, especially, like Moonlight, paying close attention to black (which is never black) skin-tones. it reminded me of Arthur ‘A.J’ Jaffa’s extraordinary talk at BFI a few years back recounting his desire to find an ‘aesthetic of the moving image – the black moving image’ equivalent to the way black music had evolved into its own distinctive idioms – from blues and jazz, to reggae, hip-hop, soul.
Hale County seems to me to be close to a specifically black rendering of documentary, not just in content, but in form and style: the close attention to the textures of skin, and hair, to the movements of the body, in gesture but also in sport, and to the cadences of speech and song – all features of A.J.s chosen clips that day at BFI: gospel singer Lateria Wooten singing Nothing But the Blood (which he said he played to students often without sound, just to focus on Wooten’s physical performance); and a short-lived Youtube star called Missilanyus Melkizeech, whose account has since been deleted.
Here’s a clip from Hale County, This Morning, This Evening.