We are not movie critics, but we grew up in Appalachia and have worked throughout and studied the inequalities of the region. We grew up in poor and in working-class families, one in eastern Kentucky and the other a few ridges over in southwestern Virginia. We witnessed and experienced the devastation 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 roughly at the same period of time as Vance but do not recognize his depiction of the region, nor the explanation of the poverty in Appalachia the book and movie offer.
We come from communities with small Main Streets where people gather under Friday night lights for high school football. We are fiercely proud of the accomplishments of our youth and hold pep rallies for our sports teams and our academic teams. We’re home to folk music and bluegrass, but also the brilliance of Bell Hooks, Frank X Walker, and the Affrilachian poets. We pick ramps on the mountainsides in April, kids play in creeks collecting crawdads and see friends gather at volunteer EMT stations in the evening to flatfoot and clog under the stars during summer, and every fall we wake up to nature’s Crayola box as leaves change colors around every bend in the mountains.
Our communities are also unfortunately home to something Vance conveniently ignores about the politics of the region and that of many regions outside of Appalachia that affect families in poverty: mostly GOP politicians who run campaigns full of false promises to bring back private-sector jobs and revitalize local economies, and then turn their backs on them when elected to cater to the party as they oppose anti-poverty programs, the expansion of health-care coverage, increasing education funding, and promoting limited public works and economic expansion in communities thirsty for jobs and stability.
“Hillbilly Elegy” echoes common GOP talking points — prioritizing personal responsibility over community care. It is meant to celebrate personal mobility, but ultimately valorizes Vance’s mobility at the expense of others who grew up like us or him. The only way to be successful in Vance’s narrative is to make it off the mountaintops and out of the isolation of the hollows into those elite spaces said to hold the “best and brightest.” To mark Vance’s journey as unique and hard-won, “Hillbilly Elegy” doesn’t grapple with the structural obstacles and economic exploitation existing for decades in Appalachia. Instead, he calls his peers back home lazy and fatalistic, and ignores those who go out of their way to make it possible for other people to succeed despite not having the opportunities themselves.
Vance paints Appalachia as a near-exclusively White space, place and worldview. Erased are Black residents and their histories in the region, as amplified in a recent book by sociologist Karida Brown, “Gone Home.” Missing are the many generations of Native American communities too often spoken of as ghosts of the past. Ignored is a growing Latino population dotting the hills and valleys. Disregarded are Appalachians who embrace racial justice and acceptance of their LGBTQ neighbors, marching in communities urging “No Hate In My Holler,” as witnessed in West Virginia, and confronting white supremacists in Pikeville, Ky.
Sociology professor John Eason details the prison boom in rural areas across the United States, including Appalachia, in his book “Big House on the Prairie.” Rather than willingly accepting these prisons, communities are fighting this expansion of mass incarceration in their own backyards as politicians and entrepreneurs dangle the promise of much-needed jobs from the new prisons like a carrot, while beating neighbors with sticks into the cells.
Little perspective is also offered about the compounding issues of Appalachian poverty. You will not hear about the environmental devastation of the region, including undrinkable tap water. “Hillbilly Elegy” doesn’t recognize families’ efforts for survival by learning how to stretch meager food stamps and unstable paychecks as they continually search for better jobs. Health-care access, constrained by limited options and insurance coverage, means many families must turn to the Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps, an emergency medical mission. The story of one person’s ability to climb out of the crab bucket without being pulled back by the others doesn’t have room for such nuance. Instead, Vance portrays intergenerational poverty as at least cultural inferiority and at worst a genetic reality — people who break the mold of their unevolved kith and kin are lucky to make it out of the hollow.
But we are also concerned about the timing of the movie’s release as the election results are still being challenged, which is arguably not a coincidence. As the aftermath of the election sets in across the nation, the release of the film probably will stir the pot, continuing to blame poor, rural Whites for election outcomes and protests that turn to violence, including the recent pro-Trump march in D.C. — reminiscent of the book’s release in the midst of the 2016 presidential election fallout. What cannot be lost is that it takes more than one sliver of a demographic to elect a president.
In 2016, over 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 supported Trump, as well. Catte points out many poor rural Whites don’t vote because they are disillusioned by how politicians have treated their communities over the years. Recent exit polls for the 2020 election shows much the same, with an increase in White support for Trump, despite the ongoing deadly pandemic. The racial divide around Trump’s support is clear, and blaming those looked down upon by their middle-class and wealthy White neighbors only uses impoverished families as a buffer to a much-needed larger critique about White voters in general.
In the end, “Hillbilly Elegy” sells the many stereotypes of Appalachian poverty as heartbreakingly true behind the age-old trope of lifting yourself up by your bootstraps. You get an amalgamation of the Hatfields and McCoys, the Clampetts, and all of their poor White friends living in ramshackle houses in the Appalachian Mountains and foothills. Viewers will not find answers to why poverty continues in the United States, how difficult life it is for impoverished families despite their many efforts to climb out of it, or how and why it disproportionately affects Black, Latino, Native American and many Asian American families.
We worry how easily people across the political spectrum will recognize the story line and embrace it in our political times. They may even donate or spend a mission trip helping Appalachian communities, but ultimately go back to the polls to vote for politicians and policies that make the situation worse for families in poverty across the nation. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this movie before.