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10 Best Documentaries About Appalachia

These documentaries about Appalachia explore the rugged landscapes of the eastern United States and show a captivating tapestry of history, culture, nature, and resilience.

The region, encompassing parts of 13 states, boasts a rich heritage shaped by the struggles of coal miners, the melodies of bluegrass music, and the enduring spirit of its people.


Documentaries About Appalachia

Documentaries about Appalachia delve into the heart of this unique and often misunderstood area, offering a lens through which you can explore the complexities of its past, present, and ongoing efforts to forge a future that respects both tradition and progress.


Hillbilly (2018)

Hillbilly explores the complex cultural and political landscape of the Appalachian region in the United States. Ashley York, one of the directors, is originally from Eastern Kentucky, and she returns to her hometown to engage with her family and the broader community.

The documentary delves into stereotypes and examines the representation of the region and its people in the media and popular culture.

It also addresses the political divide and challenges faced by the Appalachian community. “Hillbilly” offers a personal and reflective perspective on the cultural identity and the socio-political issues prevalent in the Appalachian region.

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Trailer:


American Hollow (1999)

American Hollow explores the lives of the Bowling family, residents of the Appalachian region in eastern Kentucky. The Bowling family, like many others in the area, faced the challenges of changing times and economic struggles, particularly in the context of a transforming rural landscape.

The documentary captures the cultural richness and the deep connection to the land that characterizes the Appalachian way of life. It delves into the family’s history, traditions, and their resilience in the face of economic and social changes. “American Hollow” provides a poignant portrayal of a family and a community trying to maintain their heritage in the face of modern challenges.

The film has been praised for its sensitive and respectful approach to its subjects and for shedding light on the complexities of rural life in the area making it one of the best documentaries about Appalachia to watch.


The Last Mountain (2011)

The Last Mountain focuses on the environmental and social issues surrounding the practice of mountaintop removal mining for coal in Appalachia, particularly in West Virginia.

The documentary examines the impact of mountaintop removal on the local communities, ecosystems, and public health. It follows the efforts of local activists and environmentalists who are working to oppose the mining practices and seek sustainable alternatives.

The title “The Last Mountain” reflects the concern that the destructive mining practices are reaching a critical point that could lead to irreversible damage to the environment.

The film features interviews with residents, activists, and experts, shedding light on the broader implications of the coal industry in the region and the challenges faced by those trying to bring about change.

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Trailer:


The Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009)

The Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is about the White family, a notorious and unconventional family living in rural West Virginia. The Whites gained attention due to their colorful and often controversial lifestyle, involving a mix of criminal activities, partying, and a reputation for living on the fringes of societal norms.

The documentary provides an intimate and at times humorous look into the lives of the White family members, showcasing their unique personalities, struggles, and the impact of their lifestyle on their community. It’s worth noting that the film has been criticized for its portrayal of stereotypes and the potential glorification of certain behaviors.

“The Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” has gained a cult following for its portrayal of a subculture that is often overlooked or misunderstood.

Trailer:


Oxyana (2013)

Oxyana focuses on the town of Oceana in West Virginia, USA, which has been heavily affected by the prescription drug epidemic, particularly the abuse of OxyContin. The documentary explores the impact of drug addiction on the community, examining the lives of individuals struggling with addiction and the broader social and economic consequences.

The title “Oxyana” is a portmanteau of “OxyContin” and “Oceana,” symbolizing the connection between the town and the opioid crisis. The film received critical acclaim for its raw portrayal of the opioid epidemic and its effects on small communities in the United States.

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Harlan County, USA (1976)

Harlan County, USA is a documentary film that focuses on the Brookside Strike, a labor strike that took place in 1973 among coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky. The film provides a close and personal look at the lives of the striking miners and their families, as well as the broader issues of labor rights, corporate power, and social justice.

The Brookside Strike was a result of the miners’ demands for better working conditions, higher wages, and safer work environments. The workers were facing resistance from the Eastover Mining Company, which employed them.

The strike became highly contentious, leading to confrontations between the striking miners, their supporters, and the company’s security forces.

“Harlan County, USA” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1977, bringing attention to the struggles faced by the coal miners and highlighting the importance of workers’ rights and is one of the best documentaries about Appalachia from that time.

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The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (2002)

The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia explores the work of photographer Shelby Lee Adams, known for his controversial and provocative images of families in the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky.

Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs often depict the lives of people in rural Appalachia, capturing intimate and sometimes challenging moments. His work has sparked debates about the ethical considerations of representing marginalized communities and the potential for reinforcing stereotypes.

The documentary delves into Adams’ life and motivations as a photographer, examining the impact of his work on both the subjects and the audience. It raises important questions about the responsibility of documentary photographers and the ethics of representing vulnerable populations.

The film also features interviews with Adams, as well as critics and scholars discussing the complexities of his imagery.


The Hills I Call Home (2021)

The Hills I Call Home takes a look at the small town of Beattyville which is deep in the Appalachian Mountains.

It shows a deep and intimate portrait of life in this town and the residents who bond together through everything, from the good to the bad. It is a great watch for life in a small town in Appalachia.

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Trailer:


King Coal (2023)

King Coal is one of the most recent documentaries about Appalachia to watch and takes a journey into the heart of coal mining in the region, which has played an important part in the culture of Appalachia.

Through the eyes of a coal miner’s daughter as she explores the region we see the dreams and myths associated with coal mining in Appalachia.


Mountain Talk (2004)

Mountain Talk is set in Southern Appalachia and takes a look at the legendary “mountain talk” of the people there. It shows the vast variety in the local language as well as the culture associated with the area.

The well-known Appalachian man Popcorn Sutton appears in this. You can watch the whole documentary for free on YouTube.


One extra… The Last One (2008)

Speaking of Popcorn Sutton, The Last One explores moonshine, a very strong liquor that is generally disturbed illegally, in Appalachia, which Pop Sutton is famous for doing.


Appalachia

From the mist-covered mountains to the hollers echoing with stories, these documentaries about Appalachia weave together narratives that illuminate the diverse facets of the region.

For more on the area have a look at the 10 best books about the Appalachian Trail.


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