The 2019 documentary Hillbilly challenges common narratives about Appalachian people. The film was made by Kentucky native Ashley York, who has since left the state and moved to Los Angeles after finishing college. The incitement, in this case, to return came during the 2016 election, where the choice for president was between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The left-leaning York wanted to go back to her conservative home state and experience the event with her family in their tiny rural community. Of course, she was hoping that Clinton would become the first female president, and of course, she was surrounded by Donald Trump supporters, but the story doesn’t end there.
The best part of Hillbilly, to me, was not the banter about Trump versus Clinton, but about responding to and contradicting long-ranging stereotypes of rural Appalachian people— about so-called hillbillies. The documentary features the filmmaker’s firsthand experiences alongside the words of scholars and writers, including Silas House and Frank X Walker, as well as locals, all of whom give examples and share ideas about what it means to live in a place like rural Appalachia. The film’s synopsis explains:
Filmed in Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, hillbilly uncovers an unexpected set of artists, poets, activists, queer musicians, “Affrilachian” poets, and intersectional feminists – all unexpected voices emerging from this historically misunderstood region.
As the editor of a project on beliefs, myths, and narratives, I watched Hillbilly with a particular interest in hearing people’s responses to the ideas that others have about them. Locals living in modern Appalachia understand that the average American assumes that they are like the people in Depression-era photographs that show desperate poverty, dirty children, and dilapidated homes and vehicles. Equally (or perhaps more) complex are the lives of African Americans who live the region and seek to balance their multiple identities, taking into account both the black experience and the Appalachian experience. Finally, there are the LGBTQ young people who find little to no solace in conservative small-town cultures, where their other-ness adds another layer of difficulty to an already-difficult way of life. All in all, this film does an excellent job of relaying its message: the people of Appalachia (and regions like it) are often not what they are imagined to be.
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