When the film "Big Stone Gap" premiered earlier this month, it did something no other movie ever has: showed Appalachia as a place of both diversity and intelligence. This certainly flies in the face of how most folks are used to seeing this place and its people.
Less than a year after I was born, the film "Deliverance" premiered in the summer of 1972 and has had a profound impact on my life ever since. The first time I realized this I was 18, when my family and I made our first trip to the beach. There, in a store where we were buying floats and sunscreen, a teenaged cashier overheard our mountain accents and remarked to another clerk: “Watch out, boy, you shore do have a real purdy mouth.” She was paraphrasing a famous line from "Deliverance" uttered by a nasty, toothless mountain man as he prepares to rape a city-slicker tourist. The implication, of course, was that since we were clearly from Appalachia, then we were most likely similar to that character: the violent, stupid, subhuman products of inbreeding. She didn’t even have enough respect for us to say any of this under her breath.
People all over the world think they know something about Appalachia because they’ve seen "Deliverance," which is a well-made but terribly stereotypical thriller portraying hillbillies as soulless, illiterate and mean-hearted villains. And Appalachians have been judged by these standards ever since.
"Deliverance" may have had the biggest impact, but it is certainly not the first or only perpetuation of Appalachian people as horrific or backward. In fact, some of the earliest films were explorations of this misunderstood place, and they proved to be popular. Hits of the silent film era—from 1904’s "The Moonshiner" and 1905’s "Kentucky Feud" (1905) to 1916’s "Mountain Blood"—all reveal common “hillbilly tropes” that still have power today: feuding, illiteracy, oversexualization, laziness, fear of the outside world.
These stereotypes have remained constant for more than a hundred years and Hollywood has laid them on as thickly as possible. In 1989’s "Next of Kin," contemporary Appalachian people—embroiled in a bitter feud, of course—are shown wearing clothing of the late 1800s; children play with wooden toys and guns; a man slaughters a deer and stores its carcass in his kitchen refrigerator. In 2003’s "Wrong Turn" and its four sequels, the last of which appeared in 2012, the Appalachians are inbred cannibals intent on nothing more than devouring the flesh of city people. When it premiered last month, Eli Roth’s film "The Green Inferno," about a group of social justice activists who are eaten alive by an Amazonian rainforest tribe, was met with boycotts and much controversy. Yet none of the many Appalachian-exploitation films have received any organized protest. The outcry doesn’t exist because for many people the words “Appalachia” and “poverty” are synonymous. And for even more, poverty equals powerlessness. Apparently, it’s okay to make fun of and dehumanize Americans who don’t have power. That’s certainly always been the case with film.
Two of the first novels to sell more than a million copies in our nation were about the region and written by John Fox Jr. His novels "The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come" (1904) and "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" (1908) are now considered fairly sentimental portrayals of the Appalachian people, but the books’ film legacies are perhaps more ingrained in the public consciousness. At least four films were made of "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," one of them by Cecil B. DeMille, and each showcases mountain people as illiterate, violent and in need of an urban savior. Ironically, Fox lived most of his life in the same Virginia coal-mining town that is now giving its name to the film that is revolutionizing how Appalachian people are portrayed on film.
"Big Stone Gap," a new movie adapted from the bestselling novel by Adriana Trigiani, stars Ashley Judd as a middle-aged Appalachian woman whose quiet life is disrupted by a death and a sudden revelation. The film features an African-American woman who is neither servant nor Magic Negro, a gay man who is not ostracized once he comes out, and a main character who is not only Italian, but also intelligent and even bilingual. In fact, many of the characters—including a lovable librarian and a tough coal-miner—love to read. References are made to "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights." Michelangelo is quoted. The film even showcases a couple of Melungeon characters, a tri-racial isolate that most Americans don’t even know exist because they’re rarely taught anything about this region’s culture or history. Furthermore, the film is set in 1978 and the characters actually dress like it’s 1978 — not as if they’re 30 years behind in fashion and lifestyle.
These may seem like small victories, but for Appalachian people, this portrayal is revolutionary. Even in our best films we are rarely shown as diverse, intelligent, or modern. "Coal Miner’s Daughter" is one of the region’s most beloved films because it showcases Loretta Lynn, a hero to many Appalachian people because of her pluck, determination, and authenticity. Yet even this complex portrayal of the region is not without fault. Lynn herself had complaints, among them that her mother was portrayed as always wearing dowdy gingham dresses and a haggard expression when, in fact, she “was anything but drab,” according to Lynn, who insisted that her mother wore “bloodred lipstick” and blue jeans in the 1950s.
Over and over, Appalachians have been made to be representative of the past on film. Of violence and illiteracy. In 2004, a three year-old child was killed when a half-ton boulder was pushed off an illegal mining operation and crashed through three walls to stop atop his body—just a few miles from the town of Big Stone Gap. The media barely blinked; in fact, there was no national coverage of the event. I believe that’s because to most people, Appalachians are invisible. We’re throwaway people. Films have led us to believe that Appalachians—like my family on that beach trip—are so backward, mean and toothless that they’re not worthy of respect.
Last year, when the water supply for more than 300,000 West Virginians was contaminated by a chemical spill, it was one of the worst drinking water disasters in history. Several people told me the people there “deserved it” because they were “stupid hillbillies.” When county court clerk Kim Davis became internationally famous because of her backward thinking on marriage equality, her stance was most often blamed on where she was from instead of what she believed in, despite the fact that polls showed that most Kentuckians did not agree with her. Movies have taught us that all rural people are racist, homophobic and misogynistic. Films play a large part in the way the wider world views a culture, and they’ve done quite a number on my homeland.
In a world riddled by public massacres in our schools, movie theatres and churches, this may seem like a small problem. In a world frightened of ISIS and other forms of religious fundamentalism, these complaints may seem unimportant. But one of the fundamental problems in our world today is a lack of respect for others. Unfair stereotypes lead to that kind of widespread negation of an entire people and their way of life.
Appalachia isn’t the only place that is stereotyped on film, of course. Native Americans, African-Americans, Asians, even New Yorkers and those from Fargo, North Dakota, all have specific stereotypes that have been created by films. But few other cultures have been so consistently portrayed in this way with so few examples of getting it right. Luckily, "Big Stone Gap" does. I hope that that Myrtle Beach cashier—20 years older now—will see it and learn something new.
Watch this video featuring Hollywood's love of Appalachian stereotypes:
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