Film Review: Fascinating, Complex “Hillbilly“ Champions Truth over Stereotypes

Film poster: “Hillbilly”

Hillbilly (Sally Rubin/Ashley York, 2018)  out of 4 stars.

What is a hillbilly? Who better to ask than the folks in question, and who better to ask the question than a hillbilly, herself? Filmmaker Ashley York (Tig), born and raised in Pike County, Kentucky, deep in the heart of Appalachia, self-identifies as a hillbilly, and though now living in Los Angeles, and politically and culturally worlds apart from many members of her family, returns home to examine stereotypes of her people and debunk them whenever possible. With her co-director Sally Rubin close behind, camera ever at the ready, York examines the roots of the term, what it means to different people, and what those so labeled think of it. As fine a piece of autoethnographic filmmaking as they come, Hillbilly offers a wide array of subjects, all unique, revealing the fallacy behind any attempt to define anyone, anywhere, with just one word.

Any enlightened soul in the 21stcentury should be aware of the process of “othering,” whereby we look at those unlike us and think less of them. We are, after all, tribal creatures, prisoners of our tendency to cluster in groups and take refuge among our own kind. We often think of such human ostracization in racial and ethnic terms, buy it also happens along socio-economic lines. Even within Kentucky, York relates, mountain hillbillies such as her are treated differently when they go to the big city, as she discovered in college, in Lexington. Though an excellent student and the editor of her college newspaper, York was pressured to change her accent and correct her speech patterns, lest no one take her seriously. Years later, her California neighbors still ask where she’s from. Yes, she’s a white woman, and therefore not without privilege, but also a victim of cultural preconceptions that are hard to shake.

Appalachia is a cultural region in the Eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. ©HILLBILLY

York and Rubin also explore the complicated and diverse racial history of Appalachia: not all hillbillies are white, for example. We meet Frank X Walker and his fellow “Affrilachian Poets,” musician Amythyst Kiah, activist/feminist/professor/writer bell hooks, and other prominent faces of color from the region. We also meet writer Silas House (credited as a co-writer of the documentary), a proud gay man who is also more than happy to wear the “hillbilly” label as his own. He talks a lot about the “code-switching” (the art of changing how one talks and behaves) that he and others perform depending on audience. Together they defy the implicit and direct meaning of the film’s title: stupid, ignorant, simple, poor, uncouth. York and Rubin even bring in actor Ronny Cox and local man Billy Redden, who played Drew and Lonnie in the 1972 film Deliverance, as Exhibit A in the modern propagation of the myth that hillbillies are backward and inbred. We all know those famous banjo chords and what they imply …

But then the 2016 election happens, and for some in the region it’s a watershed moment. How, wonders House, could the rural people he has championed throughout his life vote, as he sees it, for racism, homophobia and more? York, herself, struggles with the fact that her beloved grandmother – such a strong woman who, when younger, would probably have voted for Clinton – could have chosen Trump. But then we revisit the arrogant condescension of so many of our nation’s elite towards these very same hillbillies, and the tribalism light goes on. Treat people as other, and they will reject you, too. But the truth is more complicated than just one thing, and the strength of this film is how we emerge enlightened and perplexed, both. Nothing and no one should be easy to understand, and that is the greatest truth of all.

“Lily May, the Mountain Gal,” Pinex Cough Syrup Advertisement, Stand By, October 10, 1936, 7. John Lair Papers, Southern Appalachian Archives, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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