Alabama documentary up for an Oscar this weekend

Alabama documentary up for an Oscar this weekend
Barbershop from "Hale County This Morning, This Evening." (Copyright IDIOM Film, Courtesy RaMell Ross & Cinema Guild)

Nearly 80 years after Walker Evans and James Agee shined a light on life in Hale County, Alabama, Greensboro and its environs are taking center stage again, this time in RaMell Ross’ Oscar-nominated documentary film, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.”

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” follows Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, and their families, for five years. The documentary is done in an experimental, non-narrative style. Ross says it’s more about watching and being than listening and concluding. “It’s trying to show what it’s like to be a young black man in the historic South,” he said. What you’ll see then is a whole lot of hanging out and large swaths of everyday life. Ross’ unique mix of content plus form has been heralded as revolutionary and got attention early on from grant-funders and tony arts organizations like the Sundance Institute and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

RaMell Ross talks about his Oscar-nominated Alabama documentary from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“The reason why I didn’t make the film an installation or an art piece, why I turned it into a documentary, is because of the amount of people you can reach,” he said. “The film is an experience. It’s supposed to be participated in. I wasn’t interested in telling you anything. I wasn’t interested in making anything clear but allowing you to sort of fill in the gaps and to feel and to witness as much as possible.”

Ross grew up a military brat and considers Virginia to be “home.” He ended up in Alabama after applying to teach a photo course via the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization (HERO). After completing two weeks of teaching, he fell in love with the community and made the move to Hale County. Since arriving in 2009, Ross helped build Pie Lab and managed the HERO youth program. He also picked up a video camera and started filming.

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“Hale County,” the finished documentary, bears little resemblance to Ross’ original intention. “It started off as a small project and has snowballed into what it is now,” he said. The film has struck a chord with audiences and reviewers alike. The New York Times named “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” one of the Best Films of 2018, calling it “pure cinematic poetry.” The Los Angeles Times called it “an experience that is simple, complex and revelatory,” and The Village Voice raved, “It’s not every day that you witness a new cinematic language being born. …”

And then there are the awards: Sundance Film Festival “Special Jury Prize Documentary,” Cinema Eye Honors “Outstanding Non-Fiction Feature Award,” Gotham Awards “Best Documentary” and, of course, the Academy Awards nomination for “Best Documentary Feature.”

With news of the Oscar nod came a peppering of congrats and well-wishes on his Facebook page. But Ross, who remains as grounded as his subject matter, responded with a humble, “I mean, the stars have aligned on this one 🙂 thanks ya’ll.”

Despite all the accolades, which include having Danny Glover on board as the documentary’s executive producer, Ross is not planning to “go Hollywood” anytime soon. He now owns land and a trailer and plans to keep roots in Greensboro, while also teaching at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “I have a lot of projects in the works,” he said. “I’m committed to the area.”

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” is showing in select theaters. It is available on iTunes and can be streamed on the PBS website.

The 2019 Academy Awards broadcasts on Sunday, Feb. 24.

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.

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