There comes a moment in Minding the Gap when everything shifts. A Sundance darling that won the 2018 Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking and later was acquired by Hulu, the movie focuses on a trio of skateboarding friends in Illinois to delve into the unending cycle of generational abuse in poor communities ravaged by joblessness. Until about 20 minutes from the end, the viscerally gutting documentary had only hinted at the possibly abusive behavior of one of its subjects. Director Bing Liu is adamant in showing how the three Illinois teens—one of which is him—are more alike, and deeply connected, than what viewers might assume.
Grown with a son of his own, Liu’s friend Zack reflects on the volatile, often confrontational relationship he had with his child’s mom, Nina; the two are separated. “You can’t beat up women, but bitches deserve to get slapped sometimes,” he says plainly, a can of beer in one hand. “Does that make sense?” In a blink, the film cuts to another interview and the camera silently, hauntingly hovers on Liu’s face and then his mother’s, who carries a look of naked despair. Both were victims of domestic abuse by Liu’s former stepfather, an alcoholic. It’s here, in the uncomfortable marsh of reality, in the reckoning, that the film becomes about that sheer gap between healing and hurt. It is the film’s most shattering and difficult moment, It is also its most triumphant.
Like Hoop Dreams before it, Minding the Gap is a rare type of film: revelatory and fraught with pain, but still hopeful despite its enveloping darkness. Somehow, it’s not even the exception in a banner year for documentaries. When the Academy Award nominations were announced Tuesday, I found comfort amid the nominees for Best Documentary—alongside Liu’s transformative portrait of abuse was Hale County This Morning, This Evening , director RaMell Ross’s impressionistic meditation on black southern life in Selma, Alabama. (Talal Derki’s powerful Of Fathers and Sons , about radical Islamist families, was also nominated, along with RBG and rock-climbing epic Free Solo .) Minding the Gap pushes documentary to its limits; Hale County This Morning, This Evening attempts to apply a new framework entirely. Together, the two films herald an elevated form for the genre and drive at its expanding possibilities.
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Much like Liu’s film, Hale County chronicles a small community of people who come up against ordinary and uncommon odds. Ross is a photographer by trade, and the tone of his documentary assumes poetic authority—it flickers, swoops, levitates, zooms out, exhales, recoils, bleeds, cracks, and crackles, but never does it avoid who and what crosses its lens. The lyrical tone lends the film a welcome lightness, texturally and structurally. Whittled down from 1,300 hours of footage accumulated across five years, it runs a slim 76 minutes, yet manages to shoulder a great amount of weight in that time.
A series of questions bookend the film’s informal chapters. “What is the orbit of our dreaming?” “How do you not frame someone?” “Whose child is this?” Ross doesn’t answer those questions outright but instead introduces the audience to four locals. There’s Daniel, a college basketball player with NBA aspirations; Mary, Daniel’s mom who’s worked at the town catfish plant for two decades; and Boosie and Quincy, two young parents. Other town residents make appearances in images and blinking clips, but Ross mostly strips the film of dialogue. We listen as one man envisions a world without guns. Later, two elders play guitar by moonlight. There are no grand tensions, no clear-cut answers to making it, to getting over, to surviving the toll of loss in Hale County . There are only the lives—the very black lives—presented in a plain, unadorned light. With daring and compassion, the film beautifully navigates that prickly gray space of uncertainty.
In Hale County , the narrative becomes what you make it, what you choose to hold onto. It feels a lot like life.
I recently saw Hale County , and similar to Minding the Gap , was staggered by its thoughtful, almost holy, evocation of the everyday. Films depicting black life have historically skewed toward spectacle, whether chronicling street hustlers ( New Jack City , Paid In Full ), athletes who are forced to overcome racism ( Glory Road ), or death and poverty ( Boyz N the Hood , Precious ). While the last decade produced an incredible and incredibly important crop of documentaries focused on black history— 13th , I Am Not Your Negro , and OJ: Made in America (which won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Documentary)—they all tackled larger-than-life figures and issues, acting as social commentaries rather than personal ones. Ross’ eye looks elsewhere, and to great effect: He destabilizes the audience’s vantage point by moving swiftly across Alabama’s emerald terrain, shifting in and out of scenes, lives, homes, experiences. The narrative becomes what you make it, what you choose to hold onto. It feels a lot like life.
This year marks the largest streaming presence for Oscar nominees—particularly for Netflix, with Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs up for multiple awards. History is also being made in other categories: Several nominated films—including BlacKkKlansman , Black Panther, and If Beale Street Could Talk —have helped to redeem, if partially, the academy’s seeming distaste for inclusivity. Still, the inclusion of Minding the Gap and Hale County remain bright spots for me. That they beat out the Mister Rogers doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that was considered by many critics to be a sure-fire contender, adds to the gravity of the moment.
Predictions are never safe ground, but I’m willing to wager that more indie documentaries like Minding the Gap and Hale County This Morning, This Evening will populate festivals, streaming services, theaters, and award seasons in the years ahead. It’s akin to the Ryan Coogler effect, the way Black Panther opened the door for filmmakers of color in unprecedented ways. (It also helps that the documentary market is booming .) Of course, documentary operates on a much smaller scale—but it’s welcome transformation nonetheless, especially in an industry sick with its own conservatism. I’m reminded of a flickering scene in Hale County , when a young black boy on a bicycle skids into the center of the camera’s eye. Before taking off, he looks up with a wide smile and puts forward a question to Ross and the audience—and aptly enough, to academy voters who must now embrace their changing future: “Ready?”
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