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You have a sense of what you're dealing with when the credits for "Hale County This Morning, This Evening" flash across the screen at the Roxie, where the ambitious, Alabama-shot film opens Friday. It's directed, filmed, edited and written by RaMell Ross, a still photographer who's stepping up his game.
As timely as today's headlines, "Hale County" tracks the disjointed lives of two African-American men, Daniel and Quincy, and their kin and friends as they experience the highs and lows of early adulthood. These include gospel church services, the birth of twins, the tragedy of Sudden Infant Crib Death (SICD), an impromptu burial, and then life goes on for 71 or so minutes that are mostly diverting.
The press notes accompanying this production from New York's Cinema Guild announce that the filmmakers are striving to follow in the agit-prop footsteps of James Agee and Walker Evans in their fabled Depression-era film "Let' Us Now Praise Famous Men." This lofty goal is hit-and-miss in its execution: moving scenes bump up against tedious ones. The 99% percent African American cast is unpretentious and credible even when they make the beginners' mistake of staring into the camera for uncomfortably long shots. "Hale County" illustrates the sad truth of just how much of America, especially but not only the rural South, is still almost entirely segregated.
While the real-life players are generous with their time and candid in their opinions, "Hale County" would benefit from the same kind of subtitles British director Ken Loach used with "Sweet 16," his docudrama set in a part of working-class Scotland where the accents are impossible for an outsider to comprehend.
Winner of a Sundance Special Jury Award for Creative Vision, "Hale County" falls into the same category of rural expeditions as Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning 1977 doc on a Kentucky coal mine strike, "Harlan County, U.S.A." The denizens of both films live in another country from their urban cousins. In times of fire and flood, to say nothing of ordinary economic hiccups, about all we share, sadly, is the evening news.