When Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” dropped last week on Netflix, I was skeptical of how Hollywood would again portray Appalachia based on the film industry’s dismal performance.
Films like “Deliverance” and “Next of Kin” are so blatantly offensive that it leaves Appalachians a little bit gun shy when it comes to big screen portrayals.
I was also skeptical because I was left dissatisfied after reading J.D. Vance’s book of the same name, his memoir that was riveting and insulting. I am glad that Vance wrote his book and told of his success and how he overcame difficult challenges to succeed. We need stories like that to reinvent a region that has long been misunderstood and caricatured.His story is heroic. I just wish he hadn’t dragged the rest of us down when telling it.
Sure, his experiences found people who were lazy, misguided and unambitious. But that isn’t the full picture of Appalachia, and equally important, don’t people like that exist in every pocket of America?
Of course they do, but we don’t have broad generalizations about laziness and a cultural crisis for people from New England, now do we?
I know about towns like Middletown, Ohio, where Vance grew up. In fact, I grew up around Ashland, Kentucky, where there was an ARMCO steel plant – the sister plant to the one in Middletown. The region is blue collar, a little bit hard scrabble and tough, like many parts of Appalachia.
And yes, there are people there just like the ones Vance described in Middletown. But there are also doctors, lawyers, developers, and countless other professional people who overcame circumstances perhaps similar to Vance’s to succeed. Besides that, there are everyday people doing heroic things to get along in the struggle of life.
Although Vance clearly loves Appalachia and its people, he made some broad generalizations about the region, about poverty and our people that are not only unfair to the very people he cares about, but actually exacerbate the stereotypes we despise. To first understand why such characterizations are loathed, we have to first recognize that as a nation – whether that be in Appalachia or elsewhere – personal accountability has always been expected, but the demonizing of the poor must stop.
We can start by understanding social assistance programs better. For example, many people on social assistance have a job. Perhaps the assistance is financial, perhaps it’s child care, perhaps it’s transportation, perhaps it’s housing. Often, these programs are utilized so someone can have a job. The overwhelming majority of people on social assistance programs are off the programs within five years, which means they are effective and should not be defined solely by the small percentage of people who game the system.
There also has to be a recognition that unemployment in areas that are rural is not high because people are simply lazy for crying out loud. Surely, we’re smart enough as a society to see that housing, transportation, internet access, child care and many other substantial hurdles are factors in Appalachia’s struggle.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have the J.D. Vances of the world who overcome them. What it means is those barriers – which can be found virtually anywhere in Appalachia – are real and that not everyone impacted by them receives an equal distribution of opportunity. We can hope that the poor overcome those obstacles one at a time, or we can get serious about the systemic problems the region faces and consider more federal and state investment to address them comprehensively.
The good thing about Ron Howard’s depiction of Appalachia is that the big screen version of Vance’s story did not have the book’s clear political undertows and could have been told from anywhere in America. And perhaps that was the point, that Appalachia’s story is America’s story in many ways.
Perhaps Howard was trying to get to a space where the characters in the film were relatable to anyone and that the people of Appalachia did not have to be viewed solely through the lens of their struggles, but their ordinary heroism in battling them.
I’ll give Ron Howard the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the people who watch “Hillbilly Elegy’”will do the same for the people of Appalachia.
Greene is a longtime journalist in the Ohio Valley and is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.