How capitalism underdeveloped Appalachia: The economic truth ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ ignores
Fog hovers over a mountaintop as a cutout depicting a coal miner stands at a memorial to local miners killed on the job in Cumberland, Ky. Kentucky coal miners bled and died to unionize, but the days when 'King Coal' dominated the lives of people here are long gone. The legacy of this exploitative period is missing, though, from Ron Howard's film adaptation of J.D. Vance's 'Hillbilly Elegy.' | David Goldman / AP

Ron Howard’s new Netflix movie Hillbilly Elegy is a strange mélange of histrionic soap opera and half-baked attempts at social criticism. The storyline follows J.D. Vance’s autobiography of his journey from a troubled youth in Kentucky through his quest to find employment with a prestigious law firm. The movie unconvincingly thrashes out in several directions before it runs out of energy and falls lifelessly to the floor.

Howard’s melodrama seems to want to say something about Vance’s rise. He flashes back and forth in time from young J.D.’s Kentucky hillbilly roots through his family move to Ohio to his post-Yale Law School interview for an elite job.  Threatening his progress at every step are his mother’s struggles with mental health and addiction, her failed relationships, and family poverty.

Amy Adams’s Mother Vance readily amps up the volume and gnashing of teeth to advance the plot. Glen Close’s Mamaw (grandmother’s) clichéd nostrums are a threadbare safety net. Poor sister Haley Bennett is given little to do but sympathize.


The family portrait is clear at the center, but blurry around the edges. Sure it’s a tough trip for Vance and the Netflix viewer. But as the ride bumps along from collision to collision, it stays safely above the larger issues that actually shape the afflictions of Appalachia.

Just as one cannot understand the American South without dealing with slavery, you can’t seek to understand or even honestly present Appalachia without at least a quick dive into the fearful devastation that was and is still ravishing the region.

King Coal has shaped the society, ordered its class system, and constrained to poverty the area’s working class. The extractive industries were owned and controlled by outsiders from the North. In exchange for a modicum of company town stability, they locked their workers and dependents into dangerous subsistence wages. These are the conditions that shaped J.D. Vance’s family and dictated his flight to the North, from Kentucky through milltown Middletown, Ohio, and ultimately to Yale and elite law.

With only minimal snapshots and a wink to the socio-economy that coal built, we cannot understand what caused the wreckage of J.D.’s family. Without understanding, we can never hope to change it. Instead, we are left with personal disaster porn.

Make no mistake, the family carnage J.D. describes is still going on in Kentucky, West Virginia, and parts of Tennessee, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The bright shiny object in front of us is the struggle of one family. But all over Coal Country, families continue to be broken, the environment ravaged, and miners die.

Movies like Phylis Geller’s Coal Country and Mari-Lynn Evans Blood on the Mountain provide the backstory so sadly lacking in Ron Howard’s truncated foggy mountain breakdown. As long as these conditions remain, there exists a dire need for film to tell the real Hillbilly Elegy.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.