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RaMell Ross is seeking 'visual justice' for 'Hale County'

Tre'vell Anderson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

For many black artists -- musicians, filmmakers, painters, writers, etc. -- art is often burdened with the responsibility of humanizing our communities. There's been a historical obligation to prove to the world that black folks hurt and love and laugh and live just like their white counterparts, like humans.

Director RaMell Ross rejects this notion.

"I don't think that people think that (other) people aren't human. I think they think they're inferior," he said, "and inferiority is just as dangerous as a person saying (another) person is not human. So for me, it's more about connecting people to know that the similarities (between us) are rooted in something that is larger and 'they' are not inferior."

This is one of the objectives of Ross' Sundance documentary, "Hale County This Morning, This Evening," which takes a look at the Alabama Black Belt county home to just under 15,000 people, almost 60 percent of whom are black, according to the U.S. Census.

The film -- unique in its aesthetic and innovative in its structure and narrative arc -- follows Daniel and Quincy, two young black men, and their families. Ross, who first discovered his subjects while he was the manager of a local youth program and basketball coach, weaves contemporary lived experiences of what the South looks like along with historical context for an intimate portrait of black identity.

Void of the traditional struggle on which documentaries about the black experience often center, "Hale County" ruptures conventional -- and often stereotypical -- depictions of black people to create an experience that is simple, complex and revelatory.

 

While at Sundance, The Times sat down with Ross, a photography professor at Brown University who was one of Filmmaker Magazine's 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2015, to discuss his feature documentary debut, which is seeking distribution out of the festival.

Q: What about this subject and this space told you this should be a film and not a photography project?

A: It was just a feeling that there was more agency, or more purchase, on the human condition or the human mind through moving images. The cinema is incredibly macaronic and incredibly deep. The moving potential is beyond what we really understand because it's working on such a deep part of the person. I felt that there was a lot of space for imaging in the South. I haven't seen a current film about the contemporary state of the South as it relates to the history. So I was like, "I think I'm going to give it a try."

Q: I found the film eclectic in structure. How would you describe your approach?

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