Friday, December 11, 2020

Dualing Banjos: Two Portrayals of the American Hillbilly

On July 7th, back in the days before I canceled my Amazon Prime account, I saw a documentary called The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. It's about the White family, a self-proclaimed clan of hillbilly redneck ne'er-do-wells. I wanted to write a review for it, but got waylaid. In a note to myself, I wrote simply, “It's at times funny, but mostly heartbreaking. It's a great look at how America has let down its people and why white supremacy is flourishing. These people are so destitute, so despondent, and yet so resilient. An amazingly insightful film.”

With the Netflix release of the Oscar-bait movie Hillbilly Elegy, I decided now is the perfect time to revisit my review The Wild and Wonderful Whites, which didn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserved. It got a lacklustre response and mixed reviews. This isn’t surprising to me, though, because it’s by no means a feel-good movie. It’s simply a year in the life of people, and it’s generally a hopeless sort of film that seeks only to give a realistic portrayal of the American hillbilly. It’s a hopeless kind of film, one in which sympathy is tempered by the up-front awareness that many of the struggles faced by the family are self-inflicted wounds.

Yet there’s also an understanding that the poverty, mental illness, and drug abuse that plagues the family is so thoroughly ingrained that it’s almost impossible to change. One small part of the family moved away from West Virginia in an effort to “start over.” It is made clear that this was a difficult decision, one that stripped the people of their very identities, and that many members of the family lack the resources to make a clean getaway.

Near the end of the film, one of the central subjects of the documentary, Mamie, confesses that she feels like there is no hope for her or her generation; they are not only mired in poverty and ignorance, but doomed to hell. She says she only wants more for her children and grandchildren; there’s a brief cut of her smiling, laughing, and hugging one of them, only for her expression to fall into one of despair the moment the child runs off to continue playing. The utter hopelessness of these people, and the idiosyncratic self-awareness they have of their situations combined with a paralyzing inability to alter them (call it fatalism, or nihilism, if you insist on assigning it an -ism), really affected me.

This film was a portrayal of “hillbillies” in a way that was both sympathetic but unflinching. Certainly, one could easily dismiss the Whites as the main perpetrators of their own abuse, and one would not be wrong. But at the same time, I found myself rooting for them. I wanted them to get better. And I wanted their efforts, however small, however late, however utterly stupid, to succeed.

Hillbilly Elegy, by comparison, is a sneering, derisive work that aimed for the same tone as The Wild and Wonderful Whites but misses its mark and ends up caricaturing its subjects in an inexcusable way.

The thing you should know about Hillbilly Elegy is that the movie is based on a book, and that book is a memoir. The author of the book was born into a family of hillbillies not unlike the Whites, who suffer similar problems: severe drug addiction, untreated mental health problems, dire socioeconomic circumstances. The author proceeded to go to Yale. That’s pretty much the entire plot arc, which is a bit dull and self-congratulatory, in my opinion. But it’s also the sort of thing that you would write a memoir about. My problem is not with the plot but the conclusions drawn from it. Author J.D. Vance blames the people in his life for their own circumstances in what comes across as bitter libertarianism that’s the direct result of the familial traumas he suffered in his pre-college years. The general disdain Vance has for his ex-peers precludes any possible sympathy or understanding. And the generalizations he makes are sweepingly broad.

In short, the problem with Hillbilly Elegy (as a book) is that it falls victim to a fair world fallacy in which all people who are poor are poor because they are lazy; all victims of drug addiction are simply not trying hard enough to get clean; the world is populated only by pathetic losers and Vance, who heroically discovered that the secret to success is pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

The Netflix screen adaptation, directed by Ron Howard, dilutes Vance’s problematic, right-leaning ideals, making its central focus the portrayal of his mother and grandmother. Played by Amy Adams (a rich Hollywood woman in “poor face”), Vance’s mother steals the spotlight with her hysterical antics. Though I didn’t like Vance’s memoir, one thing I can say about it is that it had a point. The movie, in forcing Vance to play a milquetoast “straight man,” ends up being nothing more than an invitation to gawk at a caricature. It has no lesson. The book did, and while I disagree with it, I can at least say it was pushing forth a story that the author felt had meaning. The Netflix movie trades in cheap emotional clichés, with its characters oscillating wildly between screeching at each other in over-the-top, fake southern accents (Vance is from Ohio) and nauseatingly gooey speeches set to rousing orchestral music.

It invites the audience to gawk openly at the poor yokels with smug satisfaction and the security of knowing that the actors themselves are not real people, only pale imitations of real people. It’s a voyeuristic film that comes across as the highfalutin final project of an insufferable film student, and it would be utterly unremarkable if not for the “based on a best-selling memoir / based on a true story” tagline.

I know it’s a bit of a banality to see a film based on a book and to say afterwards, “The book was better.” I read Vance’s book in 2016 and I strongly disliked it. I disliked its cruel, pitiless, snide tone and its ham-fisted lessons on self-actualization that seemed rooted in personal scorn. However, in this instance, I’ll resort to the film’s strategy of trading in clichés and say it: The book was better than the film. And neither holds a candle to the stark, raw, provocative, and terribly under-valued documentary that is The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.

But when you get right down to it, that is how Americans as a whole regard the iconic hillbilly. We want to stare, to spurn, to point and laugh, and we want to do it without feeling bad. J.D. Vance’s book and the film based on it both allow us to witness the spectacle without being touched by it, and to be reassured of our own superiority to the hapless hicks we’re observing. It’s a modern freakshow. The Wild and Wonderful Whites does not strip the Whites of their humanity and, in doing so, demands that the audience confront the horrible realization that, there but for the grace of God go we. You don’t feel good watching it, and nor should you. The Wild and Wonderful Whites is a lens into an uncomfortable reality that, unlike Vance’s book, doesn’t extend itself into the realm of judgement.

Hillbilly Elegy robs its characters of their dignity with the weak excuse that hillbillies have none. As a result, it’s exploitative and mocking. The Wild and Wonderful Whites, on the other hand, lets its subjects speak for themselves; they are both pathetic and proud, forcing the audience to accommodate their oxymoronic nature in what is an uncomfortably close depiction of complex, wholly realized people. This is where Howard’s film failed. His characters, based on Vance’s memoir, are one-dimensional and shallow. They don’t deserve your attention; the Whites do.

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