Book 'UnWhite' Examines Appalachia’s Portrayal in Movies

Apr 5, 2019

In movies, the people and places of Appalachia are often made into an “other”. That makes it easy to both romanticize and look down upon the region. One example is the common joke many Appalachians are all too familiar with, when someone who isn’t from here pretends to play the banjo riff from “Deliverance”. In Meredith McCarroll’s book “UnWhite: Appalachia, Race and Film”, she examines the way the people of Appalachia are portrayed in films.

McCarroll’s book looks at how often stereotypes play into the way filmmakers depict Appalachians, and how race plays into these stereotypes. “I had the experience of running into, almost literally, a reading of the Affrilachian poets at the University of Tennessee and at that reading, I realized I don’t have to think about race and the region completely differently,” she said.

McCarroll said she decided to “blow up” the idea that Appalachia is a monolithic white culture. To do that, she watched a lot of movies.

She said she saw the same patterns of representation over and over again. She realized it parallels the way people of color have been represented in movies, although she makes it very clear that she does not believe that Appalachian people have been discriminated against in the same way or to the same degree. But, said McCarroll, the function of the lazy stereotypes are similar.

“A lot of times those images of poverty and rural poverty get placed in the mountains and the mountain south. And then something interesting happens as people begin to see the mountain south, as people begin to see Appalachia a place that lacks diversity.”

She explained that in films, the people of Appalachia are often romanticized, portrayed as  “our contemporary ancestors,” implying that they were a throwback to the people who settled this country. At the same time, she said, Appalachians are also demonized in films -- as is the case in “Deliverance”.

Looking at Appalachia simply through popular media is limiting because of the stereotypes in use.

“Appalachia is an incredibly diverse place. It spans 13 states, it has economic diversity, it has racial diversity, it has urban and rural. That sometimes is missed if you watch a movie or two and think you understand a place,” McCarroll said.

The book “UnWhite: Appalachia, Race and Film” is available through the University of Georgia Press.