Let’s get the housekeeping out the way. I was fortunate enough to see this film gratis because I am a “community partner” with the #MFAH Films. Please note that I consider my admission as remuneration, however such remuneration does not affect my view of this film. Please note that the opinions expressed in this review are mine and mine alone, they are not biased or cloud by my community partnership status with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Oh and there are some spoilers, so there’s that. Sorry, not sorry. Go see the movie. >> Get it? Got it! Good. Read on…
I saw this movie on the #MLK Holiday.
I wasn’t ready.
I wasn’t ready to see Black American life in this light. See I’m a Black American, 3rd generation from a slave & indentured servant. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in poverty. I know all too well what the characters experience. Yet, rural poverty is something my parents talked about in horror. See I’m also the first generation Chicagoan due to my parents being part of the Great Migration from the South. So generational poverty is in my DNA and I’m intrinsically rooted in the Black American experience. The legacy of how slavery, Jim Crow and institutionalized racism has crippled wealth, education and medical care for Black Americans – it lives with me.
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” was uncomfortable to watch. The rawness of the film made it feel like “poverty porn”. I shhhhhh you not. The air seemed thicker and I seemed to be internally choking my breath because it was such an intimate and unflinching look into Black American life and the brutal conditions of Black rural poverty.
Many points of this movie and the images, they jarred the very depths of my soul. I was triggered because I grew up in poverty, perhaps just a level above rural poverty. This movie reminded me so much of the rural poverty my Mother and Father described growing up in Hayti / Caruthersville, Missouri and right outside of Jackson, Mississippi – respectively.
I kept wondering “how did their lives get this way”??? Then I told myself, Erica — what a jerk a** response to what you already know. Their lives are “this way” because it is the legacy of being an underclass in the South. It is the legacy of being an underclass in America. That’s how. This was Hale County, Alabama??!!! Alabama – synonymous with the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing. When I think of Alabama, I instinctively think of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the murderous nature of racism in that state. I was really angry at myself for asking myself that question. We don’t ask to be born, so if you are born into a situation where your parents have no education, no fiscal agency, if this is all you know and you aren’t motivated to be and do differently or you don’t have the resources and opportunities – then this is your life. Perhaps I was sitting in denial because I narrowly escaped that type of life due to my parents leaving the south and due to them pouring into me that education was my only way out of poverty.
As a Black American parent, seeing the Black babies in the film seem to fill me with hope and dread, all at the same time. I kept wanting to leap into the screen and help. Then to see that one of the infants died of SIDS, it was haunting and heart breaking. The baby was just gone. A little Black life that was so filled with hope, no longer there.
The death of the baby was so triggering for me. (yeah, I stay triggered… it’s a thing…) I remember being so very scared when my child was an infant. I was terrified of SIDS. I swear I lived in fear for the first 5 years of my child’s life. And I stopped to think, was the young mother fearful for her babies. How did she feel about being a mother so young? They had a baby that wasn’t even 3, then to have twins and then for one of them to die. Jesus wept on the cross and so did I. I cried at this point in the movie because as a Black American person you always want to help another Black person, but how can I? Truly.
To capture the death of the baby that in this documentary was a bold, sobering and depressing act of honesty. And as I type that I am reminded that being a Black American who is a s descendant of American Chattel slaves, life and the very existence of your humanity is political, bold in the face of white supremacy, sobering in regards to the staggering inequality and depressing because the country in which you were born, in which you life is keening invested in your failure to keep you relegated as a second class citizen. The director, RaMell Ross, captured every bit of this reality for Black Americans. It was powerful, but so very uncomfortable and relentlessly poignant to watch.
I felt there was an unabridged brutality that the director wanted to share about the lives of his subject. I know that brutality as a Black American and I was so untethered as I watched this film. I will say this again, I was physically uncomfortable because here I wanted to help these people on the screen and as a Black American I have NO F’ING AGENCY to help. … because I’m trying to survive and help myself.
There was a point I was angry that the theatre was filled with white faces, but then I had to remind myself I was in a very white and privilege space. This was not my normal space. So I had no right to be ashamed, angry or befuddled. This is America and I’m Black and I have to share these spaces to get access to art and film.
I found this film very humbling, especially as I sat alone on #MLK holiday. A Black American woman who had moved up only one level from urban poverty to working class, quietly and sadly sitting there humbled by the poverty of Black Americans in rural areas. I empathized but again the reality is that I and many other working class Black Americans have no resources or capacity to help our fellow Black Americans. So I sat helpless and humbled. At one point, I became prayerful but not hopeful.
A lot of the imagery remind me of the stories my mother told me about the South. It reminded me of how her eyes used to fill up with tears as she talked about the mistreat she endured under Jim Crow in Missouri.
The images of Black American boys, their bodies and the Black American men that were their mentors and their family members… it all reminded me of my Father and how he cringed when he spoke of Mississippi.
At one point I found myself internally yelling at the characters in the film, “get out of there… you are in the grips of a slow death”. Black American rural poverty is a very slow and painful kill. It’s like disemboweling an animal but not killing them completely, then you stand by and watch their essence of life dissipate from their eyes. Being Black American (descendants of American Chattel Slavery) is just that for many. It is being born with hope attached to you and then running into every -ism imaginable, soon – the enthusiasm of life slowly slips from your eyes until you no longer have breath. A slow kill.
Honestly, I left the movie exhausted, sad and hyper aware of my Blackness.
What I found ironic is how after the film, I went to the cafe and there was a table full of film students, 4 of the 12 were Black or Black Adjacent. They were having a dialogue with their white male instructor. Yet, he was so visceral and in-depth in describing the pain and nuances of the film. It seemed he was more invested in understanding the director, his angle and the nuances of the film that made it an award winning contender – moreso than his students. And kudos to him for wanting to understand the view point of a Black male director and the subject of Black American life.
Again, I sat eavesdropping in plain sight, hyper aware of my Blackness and my lack of agency in my own country whilst drinking my pinot noir and eating a cannoli. #FirstWorldProblems
If you want to share a film about Black American rural life, strife, dreams, dwindling humanity… this is the movie. It’s unapologetically raw and in your face. It makes you uncomfortable with any privilege you may have. It makes you hyper aware that Black Americans have not come that far.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
2018 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 16m
Filmmaker RaMell Ross captures small, but nevertheless precious, moments in black lives.
Release date: September 14, 2018 (USA)
Director: RaMell Ross
Nominations: Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, MORE
Awards: Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Documentary
Cast: Latrenda ‘Boosie’ Ash, Quincy Bryant, Daniel Collins
Producers: RaMell Ross, Joslyn Barnes, Su Kim