Los Angeles-based journalist and filmmaker Ashley York, born and raised in the mountains of eastern Kentucky (the evocatively named Meathouse Holler to be specific), returns to Appalachia to question the media depiction of the region’s residents, while also tracking the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in the documentary “Hillbilly.” Co-written and co-directed with Sally Rubin, the film is a far more sympathetic portrait than J.D. Vance’s best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy,” taking a more descriptive than analytical approach.
York interviews writers and scholars, including bell hooks and Silas House, who critique the negative ways that popular media has represented Appalachians throughout the 20th and 21st centuries in fare including the comic strip “Lil Abner” and the 1972 Burt Reynolds film “Deliverance,” all the way to the 2013 MTV reality series “Buckwild.” Though many of the mountain people interviewed embrace the term “hillbilly,” they resent the characterization that they are uniformly poor and illiterate.
A self-described progressive feminist, York also drops in on her family, including her grandmother Shelby and uncle Tim, both longtime Democrats who voted for Trump. The expression on York’s face as she respectfully listens to their voting rationale is worth the price of admission.
While an effective rebuttal to media stereotyping, especially in its own portrayals of people of color and the LGBTQ community, “Hillbilly” feels less assured in dealing with the election, a subject that is getting a little tired but no less confounding.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes