We all have an idea of what a hillbilly is. Nearly a century of representation has built indelible images of a barefoot child on a porch or a toothless man with a banjo. How do these representations impact the lives of people living in Appalachia? Not only that, are these stereotypes even reflecting the true version of the region and the people that live there?
Directors Ashley York and Sally Rubin set out to examine the stereotype of a hillbilly and re-contextualize what the term means to them. York also stars in the film, as we frame to proceedings around her returning to her East Tennessee home during the 2016 election. The movie walks an expert tightrope and successfully gives a more vibrant, textured look at the region and its people. In doing so, it only further underscores how stereotypes encourage groups to behave like the worst versions of themselves.
Set against the backdrop of the 2016 election, “hillbilly” treads in potentially dangerous waters. We’ve become inundated with New York Times pieces with interviews of Trump voters that do very little but pander to the convention of what a Trump voter looks like. Early on, as York visits her Trump supporting family, one fears that this will turn into an exploration of why Trump got elected. Luckily the film has more threads and tricks up its sleeve. But even in isolation, York and Rubin stick the landing on this piece of their documentary. We reinforce these negative stereotypes of hillbillies. In response, they distrust the government and turn their allegiance towards someone else. The superiority complex the world takes towards the Appalachians only increases the divide we see in our country.
In fact, so much of the movie exists outside of the election narrative. As York travels back to her hometown, she spends most of the time highlighting communities we don’t associate with Appalachia. One section looks at the “Affrilachian” community, a group of black Appalachian residents with their own voice and unique culture. There are also groups of queer filmmakers and musicians who are making art about Appalachia and what it means to be a “hillbilly.” For some, being a “hillbilly” forms as much of their identity as being queer. These groups contextualize what makes the region special to them and how popular culture misunderstands their world.
Filmmakers York and Rubin balance these personal stories with a more macro look at the formation and consequences of the stereotype. The idea of hillbillies as lazy, dumb and unable to fend for themselves gives way to the war on poverty. The government’s program to help Appalachia fails to address the needs of the community. Instead, it doles out shoes and other belongings that speak to the cultural stereotype that was presented. From there, coal industries come in and bulldoze their environment and strip the area of its resources. On top of that, the outside world perceives Appalachians as the dirty, barefoot, inbred stereotype fed to them by film, TV and the mass media. A fascinating sequence involves Appalachian academics code-switching in order to be taken more seriously.
The image of people from Appalachia is one that gets distilled to the most base, broad stereotypes. “hillbilly” doesn’t make excuses for the behavior of its subjects. It doesn’t try and make characters see the supposed error of their ways. What it does is show that we don’t know Appalachia. There are more interesting aspects and nuances to that culture that the country at large shows broad distaste for. In the process of stereotyping this region, we give ourselves credence to mine their land and ruin their water. Along with that, we ignore the burgeoning queer and black communities within Appalachia. “hillbilly” takes one by surprise and does what a good documentary should do. It shows us that we really didn’t know as much about a group of people then we thought we did.