Stalwart Hillary-lover Ashley York goes to Trump territory circa 2016 in Hillbilly, a personal doc (made with co-director Sally Rubin) that uses politics as a launchpad but is really motivated by much deeper stuff. Having grown up in Appalachia and been wounded by the region’s lousy reputation (before moving far away for school and career), she introduces us to a slew of Kentuckians who behave nothing like the Cletuses of lore, even if they sometimes share his drawl. While she understandably tackles the sins pop culture and the media have committed in her neck of the woods (sorry, make that “holler”), the film implicitly speaks up for rural folk everywhere. (And to a lesser extent, for those in urban communities whose lives become grotesqueries on our screens.) It will certainly be welcome in the small towns shown here, and could be edifying for those city folk who, since that November 9, have had to admit how poorly they understand the nation they live in — and who, too often, leap to cheap stereotypes to make sense of things.
York begins with a little talk about her youth in Kimper, Kentucky, where coal and Walmart are the source of most jobs; she recalls being a kid and seeing a 48 Hours newscast on poverty in her area that, however good its intentions might’ve been, condescended to those it aimed to help.
Urban bigots, take heed.
She and Rubin offer a quick tour of hillbilly stereotypes from Hee-Haw to Deliverance; in the latter case, she’ll eventually offer a very poignant encounter with the man who, as a boy, was turned into the film’s emblem of backwoods menace. With plenty of shallow stereotypes to offer, though, the film overplays its hand once or twice: In lamenting the fate of Shain Gandee, a late star of the MTV series Buckwild, it ignores the fact that reality TV encourages self-debasement from the West Virginia backwoods to the Jersey Shore; it is an equal-opportunity enemy of human understanding.
York goes to visit her uncle and beloved grandmother, who voted for Trump despite having supported Barack Obama. Her uncle was a lifelong Democrat who switched affiliations specifically for the current president — he simply believed Trump’s talk of an affinity with downtrodden coal workers. Understandably but unfortunately, York won’t go to the next step, interrogating those beliefs on camera with a perspective journalists from the outside rarely offer. (Though the doc doesn’t discuss it, some of York’s other relatives in the area, including her father, are staunchly anti-Trump.)
From bell hooks to local academics, the picture interviews lots of smart people who’ve thought hard about the threats Appalachia faces from without and within. One scholar notes how the region’s rep took a curious and expedient turn: Right after the Civil War, we’re told, most writers spoke of Appalachians as “quirky, colorful” people who enriched America’s tapestry. But when industrialists discovered the region’s resources and started moving in, a new portrait emerged. Now, hillbillies were mysterious, menacing trash-people “who might threaten civilization itself.” Conveniently, thinking of them as subhuman made it easier to extract the land’s riches and move that wealth to cities.
A large portion of city folk, of course, share some version of York’s story — be it in Kentucky hills or Florida swamps or the small Texas towns that delivered George Dubya Bush unto America. For us, it is no surprise that when she goes home she meets all sorts of smart, creative, unconventional people. But some viewers may marvel at the gay and trans interviewees, the “Affrilachian” black poets, the kids starting music venues and studying at media arts centers, hoping to make their own images to share with the world. Some in the area have lost some hope, seeing so many of their neighbors fall for a candidate they knew to be a snake-oil salesman. But Hillbilly is forward-looking, believing there’s something special about its region-specific variety of what elsewhere would be called rednecks or bumpkins.
Production company: Holler Home Productions
Directors-Producers: Sally Rubin, Ashley York
Screenwriters: Silas House, Sally Rubin, Ashley York
Executive producers: Douglas Blush, Silas House
Director of photography: Bryan Donnell
Editors: Stacy Goldate, Melanie Vi Levy
Composers: Ben Caucci, John Fee