If you are inclined to put people in boxes, you should probably stop reading now.
Because RaMell Ross likely won’t fit in any of them.
Such is life for a Division I athlete turned professional European hooper, turned photography student and professor, turned Oscar-nominated filmmaker for his 2018 documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening — the 36-year-old’s first movie, no less.
Ask Ross about inspiration and he’ll offer Allen Iverson — “a guy I bowed down to, with deceptive speed and fluidity, like a bird flying amongst trees when he scores in the paint” — alongside Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and Tarr’s obscure, visually evocative 2011 film The Turin Horse.
If you watched Georgetown in the early 2000s — the golden days of Mike Sweetney, Jeff Green and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, and coaches Craig Esherick and John Thompson III — you could’ve caught a glimpse of Ross’ 6-foot-6-inch frame on the Hoyas’ bench, or scoring a garbage bucket against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Or perhaps you saw him ahead of the 2019 Academy Awards on The Daily Show promoting Hale County, with host Trevor Noah calling the film “truly beautiful” and “difficult to capture” while suggesting viewers might be asking, “Do I need to be high?” after watching a clip.
Drugs or not, you likely haven’t seen the film yet — a current box-office total of roughly $100,000 suggests fewer than 10,000 folks have.
In a way, Hale County is a simple film: It primarily follows two protagonists, Daniel Collins (who played basketball for Selma University) and Quincy Bryant, and their respective lives and families; IMDB sums it up as “a kaleidoscopic and humanistic view of the Black community in Hale County, Alabama.”
The film is named Hale County because that is where both were raised. Greensboro, Alabama, the county seat of Hale County, is where they both lived during most of the filming.
Ross’ documentary is a 76-minute distillation of more than 1,300 hours of film, and seemingly about everything (from the humanist perspective) and nothing (from a traditional Hollywood vantage point).
It is a deeply visual, abstract and immersive experience, a collection of images, moments and life shot over five years in Alabama’s portion of the Black Belt, a fertile region in the South that was historically developed for cotton plantations.
Years into Ross’ journey making Hale County, Danny Glover and Joslyn Barnes, herself an institution in the socially conscious documentary and film world, came on board as producers.
But long before that, it was another “producer” that had an instructive role in the production and preproduction process — both for the film, and in Ross’ life — that shaped Hale County into what it would eventually become.
That would be the game of basketball.
“I can’t imagine I would have been able to do the film without my sports background,” Ross said.
Act I: A basketball dream
Ross was a late bloomer who only started playing hoops seriously at age 13. His career began to bloom his junior year at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. A scholarship offer came that same year, and a journey to play in A.I.’s wake at Georgetown followed.
So did Ross’ primal artistic instincts once he got to college, for better or worse.
“Coaches would always tell me to stop dribbling so much,” Ross said of his career. “To me, it wasn’t being fancy. It was like a bird fluttering in the wind, enjoying the free fall before grabbing the food, something more instinctually grace-oriented.
“One of my problems at Georgetown was that I was as much, if not more, interested in doing AND1 moves than I was in scoring. I realized later on I was more interested in the art of the sport, and less of the rest.
“But I also wanted to go to the NBA. It was the only career, the only dream that I had.”
Ross’ life as a Hoya got off to a rocky start after he broke his foot in the summer before his sophomore season — and broke the same foot yet again as the season was about to tip off, essentially dashing those NBA dreams entirely.
“I was ready to start, and it was a devastating realization that led to a deep depression,” he said. “I stayed in my room for two weeks and didn’t do anything. Because, what am I without basketball? What am I without the dream to go to the league?
“If I was on this Earth to go to the NBA, and it didn’t happen, what else am I missing about the world? And what else am I taking for granted about the natural order of things?”
The wheels of change started to turn, pushing him toward the arts — but basketball wasn’t done with him yet, or vice versa.
Act II: A filmmaker’s beginnings
Two years after Georgetown, Ross found himself playing for Belfast Star of the Sea, eventually leading the Irish League in scoring.
His bonkers ESPN TrueHoop blog post from 2007 offers a “story from Mars” and a glimpse of the country’s chaos, which Ross experienced in full working as a regional photographer for PeacePlayers International, a community-building nongovernmental organization that brings basketball to war-torn regions, from Gaza to South Africa to Cyprus.
In 2007, one of Ross’ PeacePlayers co-workers, David Cullen, was awarded with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at The ESPYS for using basketball to promote peace and understanding between Protestant and Catholic children amid Northern Ireland’s violent decades-long conflict.
ESPN sent a photographer to Belfast to take pictures of Cullen, and the photog happened to cross paths with Ross — a random moment that sparked something greater.
“He told me you have a really, really good eye,” Ross said. “It was the first time anyone complimented my work. And when I went back to D.C., I started freelancing right away.”
With that, Ross’ second off-the-court act began in concert. Days, weeks and months of shooting soon followed.
In 2009, he moved to Hale County to work at Selma University’s YouthBuild program as a career counselor and high school basketball coach. There, Ross’ NBA dream was seemingly nothing more than a memory. But the game remained, his basketball eye now focused behind a lens.
“This idea of being the point guard, surveying the floor and trying to make all of these decisions, in the context of all these different usages of times and bodies, it’s very much like using the camera,” Ross said. “I was using it as a tool, very much the way you’d use the basketball.
“You’re not thinking about the shot, you’re just looking. And it’s all tied to extreme patience.”
Act III: The imagery of ‘Hale County’
Patience, in some ways, is also required when viewing Hale County itself.
All of which makes the thought-provoking sportscentric imagery Ross weaved into the film more of a revelation.
The film loosely centers on Daniel and Quincy. Along the way, there are still shots, and tracking shots, and time-lapses, with every angle, perspective and point of view mixed in for good measure.
“That’s why there are so many different styles of shot: Every shot is literally responding to the moment,” Ross said. “Filmmakers often preconceive what they need to get: ‘I need a wide, I need a close, cut between these things.’ ”
Indeed, each moment of Hale County offers something unique from a stylistic, storytelling and sporting perspective.
There are shots that last only a few seconds, such as the breathtaking image of a decaying hoop against a starry night. Or the juxtaposition of water dripping on concrete, first falling off Daniel while dribbling a basketball, followed by raindrops hitting the ground from a storm in the same fashion.
There are shots that capture moments rich with subtext that last more than a few minutes too. Such as watching Quincy’s toddler son, Kyrie, running back and forth (and back and forth again) in their living room for what feels like an eternity.
Or Kyrie eventually getting his hair stuck on a little kid’s hoop in the same living room. Is there something Ross is suggesting, given that the viewer watches Kyrie struggle to get unstuck but doesn’t untangle his hair from the hoop, only for the film to move on to its next shot?
“Hell, yeah,” Ross said.
Or perhaps the film’s tensest and most memorable scene: a three-minute, wide-angle still shot of Selma University’s locker room, an entire team gathered around a couch, waiting to take the court and offering up possibly every emotion on the human spectrum.
“To me in that moment, it just required that,” Ross said. “ ‘Whoa, look at this. This is wide frame.’ And I just left it. But footage from other locker room scenes, it’s nothing like that.
“You’re meta in the moment. You’re not worried about certain things, because intuition says you’ve done it so many times. You’re functioning on a different level.”
Indeed, Hale County operates on its own level, especially as a sports documentary. Latent meaning or direct explanations behind Ross’ message are always many counties away.
“It’s complicated,” Ross coyly offered when discussion turned to the film’s portrayal of sports. See the film for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
Prologue: 1,000 shots, from beginning to end
Long before a random ESPN photographer unwittingly set off his artistic fuse, Ross credits his early days of practice — yes, we talkin’ ’bout practice — that cultivated an intensive filming process, something shooters of both types can learn from.
“Working out and thinking, all right, in one year, I’ll be able to do this,” Ross said of the basketball and filmmaking parallels. “The payoff is something that comes far down the line for individual discipline in the moment.
“That’s kind of how I saw the film: ‘I’m going to shoot for a week. Hopefully after the week, I’ll have one or two good shots. But I know that after a month, I’ll have six or seven, and then the next month, 14.’ It all adds up to something later down the line. It’s not about the moment; it’s just about discipline with the idea. This is what I’m doing.”
As a result, Ross’ future is full: He’s still living in Hale County when he’s not teaching photography at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. And he’ll also be traveling back to Durham, North Carolina, soon — this time trading out the early 2000’s Cameron Crazies for curating the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which takes place there April 4-7.
But perhaps none of that would be possible without his first basketball blueprint, one Ross can trace all the way back to Lake Braddock and his freshman coach, Robert Barrow, a high school teammate of Grant Hill’s.
“He told me, ‘You’re going to work on your ballhandling for an hour a day with no rim in sight and do these extremely repetitive drills, building up your muscles,’ ” Ross said. “And you’re going to do this exactly, not deviating at all. Just doing this.
“In college, it was making 1,000 shots a day with my father. Then bring them all together. Devoting yourself. Practicing actual devotion and belief, that what you’re doing now is perhaps painful, and still finding the joy in it.”
In the wake of Ross’ devotion, joy and insistence on following his instincts across the country and world, Hale County, a film you most certainly cannot put into a box, was eventually born.
And thank God, we all have the game of basketball to thank for that.