“To See Ourselves as Others See Us”: The Southern Appalachians on the Screen (Part 1)

May 10, 2022

southern appalachians

From Tobacco Road to Deliverance and, in this century, from District 12 in The Hunger Games to the lame screen version of J.D. Vance’s simplistic, self-serving Hillbilly Elegy, the people of the Southern Appalachians have often been ill-served by American popular culture, especially on screen.

The Representation of People in the Southern Appalachians

In novels, plays, films, and television, they have been caricatured as toothless yokels, violent hillbillies, slatternly women, illiterate layabouts, and drunk-on-moonshine racists.

However, from early on, there were writers from within mountain culture who deeply understood the people of the Southern mountains and captured them accurately in their fiction. That is, writers like Thomas Wolfe and John Ehle and, in recent decades, others like Ron Rash, Wiley Cash, Charles Frazier, and Sharon McCrumb who have been equally acute – and entertaining.

This subject was examined in Media-Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination by Jack Temple Kirby and even more perceptively in Jerry Williams’ 1995 Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies, as well as his other writings.

These portrayals of Southern Appalachians, positive and negative, in fact and fiction, were at the forefront of my mind in the years I researched Met Her on the Mountain: The Murder of Nancy Morgan. As a Jew, raised in the South Jersey suburbs, with all the cultural baggage and predispositions that implies, I was always cognizant that I am an outsider in Madison County.

The Perspective of John C. Inscoe

I was reminded of this recently as I read Movie-Made Appalachia: History, Hollywood, and the Highland South, by John C. Inscoe, published in 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press.

At first, Inscoe, a native of Western North Carolina, felt that the bulk of the cinematic portrayals of the southern highlanders were cartoonish and condescending. Then, he taught a seminar on the subject at the University of Georgia, which changed his mind.

“Hollywood has done far more than perpetuate crude and demeaning stereotypes of mountain people,” he wrote. “I came to realize that, when treating seriously both the content and tone of these movies, they can serve as effective conduits into the region’s history, some grounded firmly in historical realities, others loosely so…these are films with more redeeming value than they’ve been given credit for.

“The very fact that they confront real issues and events should allow us to approach them as glasses half full rather than dismiss them as half empty.”

One of Inscoe’s favorites is Sgt. York (1941), starring Gary Cooper.

“For the most part, the script and the performances avoid cartoonish hillbilly stereotypes,” he writes, “allowing the characters a degree of dignity and genuine humanity not often seen in earlier depictions of Appalachia onscreen.”

This idea is also true of films about the portrayal of feuding in Eastern Kentucky, especially the infamous Hatfields and McCoys, which he writes are anything but one-dimensional: “From silent films to television miniseries, such imagery was only part of the far more mixed, multifaceted, and ultimately human portraits conveyed on screen.”

Throughout his college course, Inscoe found a recurring theme in the interactions of well-intentioned outsiders and natives, both as individuals – religious and secular missionaries. 

Interactions Between the People of Southern Appalachians and Larger Entities

Likewise, he looks at the portrayal of less altruistic encounters with larger entities, like timber and coal companies. Even more so with governmental institutions. In the case of the government, the result has been the large-scale displacement of Southern Appalachian people from their land, by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Park and Forest systems and, in Madison County, by the extension of Interstate 26. The latter was poignantly recorded by Rob Amberg in The New Road, with its indelible images of burning churches.

In contemporary times, the threat of land loss has come in the form of commercial development and the proliferation of second homes. The latter has been a mixed blessing, to be sure: The boom prices many young natives out of the housing market, while unquestionably injecting the economy with paying work that enables them to stay.

The importance of land, acquiring it and holding onto it, is at the center of films like Wild River (1960), directed by Elia Kazan, and The Dollmaker (1984), an ABC TV movie starring Jane Fonda, in one of her best performances, and Levon Helm.

“What makes these films such valuable resources and effective teaching tools,” Inscoe writes, “is that they capture elemental truths about the emotional attachment to land through the particularities of place, time and character.”

Next week, I’ll share the second part of this series, “To See Ourselves as Others See Us”: Race and Racism in the Southern Mountains.

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