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The Exotic Appalachian

Since the death of Burt Reynolds, there's been a renewed interest in his movies. There are good ones, bad ones, and truly terrible ones. Some are fun and some are exciting. However, one of his movies, maybe the one that features the best acting and the best script, has had a negative influence on how Appalachians (or Southerners) are perceived.

I'm talking, of course, about Deliverance. Based on James Dickey’s novel of the same name and released in 1972, the film features Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and Jon Voight as four men intent on running the rapids of a north Georgia river. The movie, although well-made and Oscar-nominated, is brutal on many levels, and sadly, its impact on perceptions of Appalachian people has been long-lasting.

Deliverance portrays an Appalachia where most everyone has mental and/or physical disabilities, an Appalachia where perverse pleasures are procured by violent means, and an Appalachian environment that threatens to consume outsiders. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard Deliverance jokes on television, in movies, and even in real life.

I've been thinking about how Appalachia is portrayed to extremes, both bad and good, in movies and on television.

On the dark side, we see murderous hillbillies in Wrong Turn, vengeful hillbillies in Next of Kin, and ignorant hillbillies in The Beverly Hillbillies.

On the "bright" side, The Waltons steeps us in nostalgia, while Sergeant York portrays lofty spirituality. Matewan reveres the families who helped unionize the coal mining industry and Coal Miner’s Daughter details a poor Kentucky girl’s ascent to stardom.

The thing is, like the rest of the world’s people, residents of Appalachia are neither wholly admirable nor wholly despicable. We are complex human beings.

Although she was speaking about Appalachian literature, I think author Denise Giardina’s comments also apply to movies and television shows about the region: “This thing we call Appalachia is much more complex than presented.”

So how do we advocate that complexity to the producers and directors in Hollywood? Do they even care? Not likely. What matters most to them is the bottom line. It's easier and cheaper to deal in stereotypes. Few directors and actors can finesse a realistic depiction of Appalachian characters and the complicated issues they face. Hollywood takes the path of least resistance, a path littered with the stinking corpses of saintly mothers, incestuous fathers, moonshine runners, noble miners, inbred killers, and rising stars.

This leaves us, the real Appalachian people, in a quandary. Should we be insulted by these characterizations? Should we rise up and revolt? Thick skin being a necessity in these parts, often we shrug off the humorous slights and cardboard portrayals. Sometimes we even snicker at the jokes ourselves.

Novelist Sharyn McCrumb believes that Appalachia will never fully overcome its negative stereotypes. Maybe so, but perhaps we can flip that on its head.

The very fact that these stereotypes still exist in popular culture shows that people outside of Appalachia find us intriguing. Our region and its landscape, culture, and residents captivate the imagination. Performance artist Jo Carson has said that because our country is more homogeneous than it ever has been, “Anybody who still has an identity or defines themselves in a regional way becomes of interest in some fashion.”

So you say you’re from Appalachia? Guess what? You’re not a’re an endangered species: the exotic Appalachian!

Based on an article I wrote for The Coalfield Progress in October 2006.

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