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'Hale County' review: Oscar-nominated doc needs stronger human connection

Willie, one of the subjects in "Hale County

Willie, one of the subjects in "Hale County This Morning, This Evening," a documentary airing on PBS' "Independent Lens." Credit: RaMell Ross

DOCUMENTARY "Hale County This Morning, This Evening"

WHEN|WHERE Monday at 10 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT’S ABOUT RaMell Ross’ Oscar-nominated documentary focuses on Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, young African-American men living in rural Hale County, Alabama. When we meet them they are already on different paths: Collins plays basketball at Selma University, while Bryant works at a factory to support his children. Over the course of five years, RaMell captures a wide range of moments in the lives of these men and others in their community.

MY SAY To fully appreciate this nontraditional documentary, a bit of background might help. Hale County isn’t a random spot on the Alabama map; it’s where the photographer Walker Evans and the author James Agee went in 1936 to gather material for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” their 1941 book about white sharecroppers surviving in the wake of the Great Depression. Evans’ bleak yet beautiful photographs of weather-beaten women and hangdog men have done as much to define the American South — fairly or unfairly — as any novel by William Faulkner or Harper Lee.

Hale County has since become largely black, and Ross, a photographer by trade and an African-American, seems eager to revisit and redefine the place. His film is best understood in relation to the Evans-Agee book, whether as a response, an addendum or an emendation.

Ross’ approach, in which images take precedence over story or character, has its pluses and minuses. Ross certainly knows how to set a mood and evoke a feeling. We see women kneeling in church, schoolgirls whiling away the evening by singing pop tunes, a bluesman playing guitar in his yard after dark. Hale County seems to come alive at night; a long morning drive, played for us in time-lapse, reveals not a single living soul. Ross’ eye for mundane, slightly forlorn places -- street corners, parking lots, a stretch of chain-link fence -- recalls that of the photographer William Eggleston, another definitive chronicler of the South, who found powerful symbolism in the region’s decaying Americana.

All of which means that “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” seems more concerned with aesthetics than with real people. The film’s chapter headings post mostly theoretical questions, such as “How do we not frame someone?” (A nod, perhaps, to criticism that Evans and Agee exploited their impoverished subjects.) Even when a child in this movie dies, Ross seems uninterested in the emotional ripples. At the funeral, his camera keeps its distance — an act of respect but also a missed opportunity for intimacy, empathy and drama.

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” has an academic feel, which is not to dismiss it. The film is an update of history and a valuable entry into the cultural archives of the South. A stronger sense of human connection, though, could have spoken to our hearts as much as our minds.

BOTTOM LINE A visually mesmerizing but only half-illuminating documentary on black lives in the Deep South.

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