As you sit down during quarantine and pull up your Netflix account after letting that leftover Thanksgiving turkey digest, you’ll likely see a banner prompting you to consider watching a movie called “Hillbilly Elegy.”
The movie is based on author J.D. Vance’s 2016 book of the same name, which told a rags-to-riches-type story about his life growing up in Appalachia and his critiques of the region. The book was massively successful, which, in turn, made its author rich and highly sought after but drew backlash for its negative portrayal of Appalachians.
We want to share with readers why we’re not going to watch this movie and hope that others follow suit.
The story Vance tells in the book is, no doubt, impressive in many respects: He grew up “poor,” had a mother who struggled with substance abuse, joined the Marines, graduated from Yale Law School and amassed a considerable amount of wealth and notoriety. Many people will tell you that Vance’s book is about this very story. It’s not.
Vance uses his “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” story as a neat and tidy veneer to drape over the rest of the book, where he uses his singular lived experience to conclude that an entire region suffers from what he calls a “culture in crisis.”
A book that simply could have focused on Vance’s journey instead ventures out into a story depicting Appalachians in stereotypical roles; sad, lazy, uneducated and unwilling to change their situations. In 2016, when this book was published, Appalachians everywhere knew how much it would resurrect old stereotypes that we’ve pushed back against during our entire existence.
Now, the Netflix adaptation looks to project those stereotypes into captive audiences quarantining at home nationwide.
As native Applalchians, we believe “Hillbilly Elegy” is not the true story of the region, and we want to help you find the best alternatives to this misrepresentation of the region. This is part of the reason why we started a podcast about Appalachia (“Appodlachia”) — to provide a different perspective to the narratives that often get captured in the mainstream media.
After reading Vance’s memoir, you might think the region is filled with uneducated, sad and even uncreative people; this could not be further from the truth. A great example of that is the podcast “Old Gods of Appalachia.”
“Old Gods of Appalachia” is a horror-anthology podcast set in an Alternate Appalachia, a place that was never intended to be inhabited, and digging too deep into the mines and mountains was only the beginning. The podcast has spent the past few months at the top of the Apple Podcast charts, amassing more than 1,200 reviews and a five-star rating. It is definitely a must-listen.
In 2016, after the release of Vance’s book, headlines were taken over by how bad a place Appalachia was. The region was seen as the area left behind by the rest of the country. Overall, like many stories, some were dramatized and some told the truth of the region. At the time, Appalachia needed someone to tell the real story that so many were getting wrong; that’s where “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” by Elizabeth Catte, comes in. The book is a frank assessment of the fascination with the people and problems of Appalachia. In the book, Catte breaks down the trends of writing on Appalachia, combats the stereotypes of the region and highlights writing, art, and even policies created by Appalachians. If you’re trying to learn about the real Appalachia, we urge you to start here.
Ultimately, we know Netflix is going to push this to every user who logs onto the platform and tempt them to watch. With more than $45 million dollars invested and Oscar nomination rumors for Glenn Close and Amy Adams, why wouldn’t they?
However, we ask that you don’t watch it.
Please get to know the beautiful region that is Appalachia; without the blinders of a novel, billed as a memoir, that was always intended to become a dramatized story on the big screen.