When Hollywood came to my Ohio hometown (the book was better)
Among other momentous events, I’ll remember 2020 as the year when, decades after leaving my Ohio hometown, Hollywood brought it back to me.
Appropriately, reactions to Ron Howard’s film, “Hillbilly Elegy,” have been about as polarized as the politics that helped turn J.D. Vance’s memoir into a breakout hit in the 2016 election cycle.
As I have written before with unabashed Buckeye pride, Vance’s memoir about overcoming an impoverished childhood in rural Kentucky and Rust Belt Ohio to graduate from Yale Law School could hardly have come out at a better time.
Donald Trump had just surprised the political and pundit establishment, including me, by winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Conservative pundits in particular cheered the memoir’s accounts of lower-income grievance and cultural resentment among working-class whites whom globalism and structural economic changes had left behind.
Boosted by Oprah’s Book Club, among other notables, Vance suddenly became a sought-after Trump translator on talk shows in the fashion of “Luther,” President Barack Obama’s fictitious “anger translator” created by the “Key & Peele” comedy team.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood wanted a piece of this action. Popular filmmaker Howard brought cast and crew to Middletown — including stars Amy Adams as Vance’s drug-addicted mother and Glenn Close as his memorably profane but tough-minded grandma.
I thought the movie was pleasant and even heartwarming at times, mainly at the cost of the story and commentary elements that made Vance’s book so controversial.
Moviegoers who haven’t read the book might well wonder what made it controversial.
Howard’s storytelling strips away most of the book’s cultural and socioeconomic context that American Conservative writer Rod Dreher praised as doing “for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.”