‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Does Not Need to Be a Political Analysis
Last night, I watched Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix the Ron Howard adaptation of the 2016 memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance. I thought it was a very good movie with touching personal testimony and family drama. I heard of the book before in relation to Trump winning the 2016 election, but I didn’t read it, and I saw the movie on and thought that it would be relaxing to put something on while I did work simultaneously.
About three-quarters of the way through the movie, however, I ruined it for myself. I looked up “Hillbilly Elegy” on Google to be swarmed with negative reviews of the movie, critics absolutely trashing it, and a 25% Tomatometer (critic) score on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie and book are about Vance’s personal story going to Yale Law School after growing up in southwestern Ohio (but whose family hailed from Breathitt County, Kentucky), poor, and with a single heroin-addicted mother who shuffles between boyfriends, has received the brunt of the hate from movie critics right now.
Fortunately, I’m able to think for myself enough to make my own evaluation, and I don’t think Hillbilly Elegy is the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s not bad. I know I’m a very easily pleased viewer and reader and tend to ignore reviews in the first place. However, seeing so much hate thrown the movie’s way has made me feel compelled to defend it. I haven’t seen such a strong disconnect from a critic score and audience score (25% to 82%) since the controversial Dave Chappelle special in 2019, Sticks and Stones, which I thought was hilarious.
The premise of all the criticism of Hillbilly Elegy is that the movie doesn’t go far enough. David Sims at The Atlantic says the film and the book don’t deal with deeper systemic issues. The film, in Sim’s words, strips the “text of anything that might feel remotely controversial or pointed.” Sims calls it “one of the worst movies of the year” since it “isn’t working with bigger ideas.” Adam Neyman at The Ringer says the film has no interest in exploring the “‘forgotten’ citizens of red-state America.” Vance’s employer at the American Enterprise Institute is criticized for working against creating an effective social safety net and opposing universal health insurance by Jessa Crispin at The Guardian, but that criticism has nothing to do with the movie itself.
Never mind the fact that Vance published Hillbilly Elegy before Trump got elected. Hating on Hillbilly Elegy is the woke thing to do at the moment, and I certainly hope I don’t get the guillotine for daring to go against the undeserved wokelash to the film (this is coming from someone who voted for Bernie and Biden).
But since when does the experience of one family hailing from Kentucky have to speak for every single forgotten citizen of red-state America? As an Asian-American, the experience of my family is not extrapolated to the problems of all Asian-Americans — and I know Vance’s family is not supposed to be a stand-in for every family in the Appalachian diaspora.
Recently, Jay Sizemore wrote about how the controversy surrounding the film relates to the memoir, where people latched on to theses of why so many red-state voters vote for Trump even though it’s not in their best interest. Jay talks about how the book is just a personal memoir, but has produced numerous think pieces after being a New York Times bestseller. Jay also talks about how many people made calls to boycott the movie before it even came out to disparage the movie.
As someone who grew up in rural Kentucky himself, Jay related to the movie. He resonated with the acting and resonated with the terrific performances of Amy Adams and Glenn Close in the movie. While the movie does briefly touch on many complex systemic issues, like the clinging to religious faith and the treatment of addiction in a dysfunctional healthcare system, a large criticism of the movie is its emphasis on personal responsibility and Close’s character, Mamaw, stressing personal responsibility for him to get his act together as a teenager. But the criticism is off base because the book is a memoir, as Jay points out:
“Since when did we start expecting that memoirs, which are written from the personal perspective of one author, to have to be one hundred percent accurate in their generalized interpretations of their own lives and circumstances, or the lives of those they’ve witnessed within the confines of their own experiences?” he asks.
At the end of the day, Jay urges anyone watching the movie or reading the book to make up their own mind. And I completely agree with him. But I also want to touch on another point that Jay makes very well — Hillbilly Elegy is not a political analysis. It’s not a window into the appeal of Trump and conservative politics in Appalachia and South. It’s a memoir and a re-telling of personal experience, and it doesn’t need to be more than that.
Of course, that’s denying the fact that much of the commercial success of Hillbilly Elegy has come from the critical reception of people reading the book, in the words of Sarah Jones of The New Republic, as a “white trash-splainer.” Jennifer Senior of the New York Times, says the book is a “sociological analysis of the white underclass.” And I’m sure these critical analyses helped the book sell and get exposure. I’m sure the negative reviews of the movie are also helping the movie gain exposure.
At the heart of the hate for Hillbilly Elegy, according to Meghan Daum, is Vance himself. Daum notes that many critics on Twitter had actually seen the movie or read the tweets. Instead, what they were enraged with was:
“[A] personal story of overcoming massive family dysfunction (and not a little personal dysfunction) via the Marine Corps and then scholarships to Ohio State University and Yale Law School has been interpreted by some leftists as up-by-the-bootstraps conservative rhetoric.
And even though the film and the book are not political or sociological analyses, Vance himself has played that role outside of his role as an author. According to Daum, he has been on CNN explaining poverty in rural America, and also was recruited by Mitch McConnell for running for the Senate. However, he took a venture capital job in Silicon Valley is now in Ohio trying to set up a nonprofit to help fight opioid addiction.
Much of the hate for the film and book appears, to Daum, to be because Vance is a conservative. Some users on Twitter have called him a Trump supporter, which there is no evidence for. Daum groups Vance in the same group as Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Lena Dunham, Megyn Kelly, and Hillary Clinton, whose decisions and words are subject to extremely high scrutiny not present for people deemed less problematic.
But the subject matter the movie is based on is a memoir, not any of Vance’s later commentary. And yes, Vance does make political observations in the book, such as why people in Appalachia didn’t like Obama, about how the white working class is not a monolith (“not all of the white working-class struggles”), about how an acquaintance of his who blamed the “Obama economy” for ruining his life needed to take personal responsibility for his failures.
All of these claims, however, are explored through the lens of his personal experience. Daum didn’t like the movie based on the craft, but makes sure to say “it’s not a crime against humanity.” And much of that opposition is ideological, according to Daum:
“I can’t help but think that many of the film’s haters would be less inclined to express their disapproval — or to register any opinion at all — if it weren’t based on the life story of someone they’d construed as some kind of ideological foe.”
I certainly didn’t agree with some of the film’s themes, but again, it was a memoir and a lens into how Vance sees the world. The film is rightly personal instead of political, and Jamil Janvi, who was Vance’s best friend from law school, stressed at the end of the day that prioritizing the personal instead of the political is the right choice when “partisanship has overtaken so many parts of our lives.” The movie was Howard’s choice to humanize the characters, which is important because Janvi emphasizes that it’s easier to identify with people over political commentary.
And I completely agree with Janvi’s assessment. Was Hillbilly Elegy my favorite film ever? No. But it also isn’t a bad movie just because it focuses on the personal over the political. The movie does not need to be a political analysis. And I will leave you with the quote of the book that most compels me to read it as a memoir first, everything else second.
“Nearly every person you will read about is deeply flawed. Some have tried to murder other people, and a few were successful. Some have abused their children, physically or emotionally. Many abused (and still abuse) drugs. But I love these people, even those to whom I avoid speaking for my own sanity. And if I leave you with the impression that there are bad people in my life, then I am sorry, both to you and to the people so portrayed. For there are no villains in this story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way — both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine.”