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Searching for the Real Appalachia in Netflix ‘Hillbilly Elegy’



We are not film critics, but we grew up in Appalachia and have worked through and studied the inequalities in the region. We grew up in poor and working-class families, one in eastern Kentucky and the other a few ridges in southwest Virginia. We witnessed and witnessed the destruction of poverty in the region as the coal mines, mills and factories closed at breakneck speed in the 1980s and 1990s, and the rise of the opioid epidemic spread across the region in the early 2000s. We grew up around the same period as Vance, but do not recognize his depiction of the region or the explanation for poverty in Appalachia that the book and film offer.

We come from communities with small main streets where people gather during Friday night lights for high school football. We are very proud of our young people̵

7;s achievements and are holding a pep rally for our sports team and our academic team. We are home to folk music and bluegrass, but also the brilliance of Bell Hooks, Frank X Walker and the affrilachic poets. We pick up ramps on the mountainside in April, kids play in creeks, gather reptiles and watch friends gather at volunteer EMT stations in the evenings to flatten and clog under the stars in the summer, and each fall we wake up to nature’s Crayola crate when leaves changes color around each bend in the mountains.

Unfortunately, our society is also home to something that Vance conveniently ignores in politics in the region and in many regions outside Appalachia that affect families in poverty: mostly GOP politicians running campaigns full of false promises to bring jobs in the private sector back and revive local economies and then turn their backs on them when elected to meet the party as they oppose poverty programs, expand health coverage, increase education funding and promote limited public works and economic expansion in communities that are thirsty; after job. and stability.

“Hillbilly Elegy” repeats common GOP rhetoric – prioritizing personal responsibility over community care. It is meant to celebrate personal mobility, but ultimately values ​​Vance’s mobility at the expense of others who grew up like us or him. The only way to succeed in Vance’s tale is to make it away from the mountain tops and out of the isolation of the caves of the elite spaces that are said to contain the “best and brightest.” To mark Vance’s journey as unique and hard won, “Hillbilly Elegy” does not struggle with the structural obstacles and economic exploitation that existed for decades in Appalachia. Instead, he calls his peers lazy and fatalistic home and ignores those who go out of their way to enable other people to succeed despite not even having the opportunities.

Vance paints Appalachia as an almost exclusively white space, place, and worldview. Deleted are black residents and their stories in the region, as reinforced in a recent book by sociologist Karida Brown, “Gone Home.” Missing are the many generations of Indians who are often talked about the ghosts of the past. Ignored is a growing Latino population that spans hills and valleys. Aside from that, Appalachians who accept racial justice and acceptance of their LGBTQ neighbors are marching in communities calling for “No Hate In My Holler,” as a witness in West Virginia, and confronting white supremacy in Pikeville, Ky.

Sociology professor John Eason describes the prison boom in rural areas across the United States, including Appalachia, in his book “Big House on the Prairie.” Instead of willingly accepting these prisons, local communities are struggling with this expansion of mass imprisonment in their own backyard, as politicians and entrepreneurs hang the promise of much-needed jobs from the new prisons like a carrot while beating neighbors with sticks in the cells.

It also offers some perspective on the complex issues of Appalachian poverty. You will not hear about the environmental damage in the region, including non-potable tap water. “Hillbilly Elegy” does not recognize the families’ efforts to survive by learning to stretch lean food stamps and unstable paychecks when they are constantly looking for better jobs. Access to health care, limited by limited options and insurance coverage, means many families have to turn to the Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps, an emergency medical mission. The story of a person’s ability to climb out of the crab bucket without being pulled back by the others has no room for such a nuance. Instead, Vance portrays intergenerational poverty as at least cultural inferiority and, at worst, a genetic reality – people who break the shape of their undeveloped relatives and relatives are lucky to make it out of the cave.

But we are also concerned about the timing of the film’s release, as the election results are still being challenged, which is no doubt not a coincidence. As the deepening of the election begins across the nation, the release of the film is likely to touch the pool and continue to accuse poor, rural whites of election results and protests facing violence, including the recent pro-Trump march in DC – reminiscent of the book’s release in the midst of the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. What cannot be lost is that it takes more than part of a demographic to elect a president.

In 2016, more than half of white voters, including college-educated whites, supported Trump, and more than half of all suburban voters and those earning more than $ 50,000 also supported Trump. Catte points out that many poor rural whites do not vote because they are disillusioned with how politicians have treated their communities over the years. Recent exit polls for the 2020 election show pretty much the same thing with an increase in white support for Trump, despite the ongoing deadly pandemic. The racial division surrounding Trump’s support is clear, and the blame on those whom their middle class and wealthy white neighbors look down on uses only poor families as a buffer to much-needed greater criticism of white voters in general.

In the end, “Hillbilly Elegy” sells the many stereotypes of Appalachian poverty as heartbreakingly true behind the ancient trope of lifting yourself up off your bootstraps. You get a fusion of Hatfields and McCoys, Clampetts and all their poor white friends living in outrageous houses in the Appalachian Mountains and the foothills. Viewers will not find the answer to why poverty continues in the United States, how difficult life is for poor families despite their many efforts to climb out of it, or how and why it disproportionately affects blacks, Latinos, Indians and many Asian Americans. families.

We are concerned about how easily people across the political spectrum will recognize history and embrace it in our political time. They may even donate or spend a mission trip helping Appalachian communities, but eventually return to the polls to vote for politicians and policies that make the situation worse for families in poverty across the country. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this movie before.


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