Appalachia is as old as it is complex. Comprising Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Virginia, as well as parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, the region and its people are home to a mountain range and a history that make it an undeniably special–and even quintessentially “American”–place. Due to a century-and-a-half of reliance on coal as its core industry, one of its defining characteristics has been a “boom and bust” economy that has also made Appalachia a region of poverty and a frequent focus of national attention. From these mountains and circumstances have emerged a complicated, enduring, and often problematic American archetype: the hillbilly.
Hillbilly is a documentary film that examines the iconic hillbilly stereotype in film and television, exploring more than a hundred years of media representations that reveal how mountain and rural people have been portrayed, often using two-dimensional language and humor to create negative stereotypes and embed a perception of poor, white, rural America. Featuring bell hooks, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Garner, and others, the film deconstructs these depictions while asking crucial questions: Where did the hillbilly archetype come from and why has it endured onscreen for more than a hundred years? How does it relate to the exploitation of the land and the people who live there? How do Appalachian and rural people view themselves as a result of these negative portrayals, and what is the impact on the rest of America? Finally, how does the way mainstream America treats the rural, working poor mirror long-held fears middle and upper classes have about who they are, and who they may become?