Untapped Potential

07.27.14

Filming a Beautiful Town in Decay: ‘Rich Hill’ and the Elusive American Dream

Businesses closed, the town center turned ghost-like, homes had tarps on their roof and plastic over broken windows. This was the Rich Hill I grew up in.

Once upon a time there was coal and ambition in Rich Hill—a rural town in southwestern Missouri with a population of 1,330—but shortly after World War II most of both ran dry. 

For me, the most important thing about Rich Hill is family. It’s the town where my father grew up. He was killed in Vietnam when I was three months old, and my relationship with his family, particularly my grandparents, was especially close. They were like surrogate parents and a huge influence on my life and my work. My grandmother was the third grade school teacher in Rich Hill; my grandfather owned the town grocery store, and when he was forced to close it, he became the rural mail carrier. Both my grandparents worked hard and although they would never be considered well off, they were fortunate to have steady jobs and a home. And they gave back to their community.

Growing up, I spent every summer and winter break in Rich Hill, which was a stark contrast to the rest of my childhood, spent in Oakland, California. Rich Hill was a place I longed to visit. I loved the seasons—the beauty and magic of rural America with its quiet, slow place. I learned to fish in the old strip mines that had become ponds, and I learned to drive on the gravel roads.

But like many other struggling rural towns across America, with sizable jobless populations and vulnerable families, the conditions in Rich Hill were sometimes bleak and, as I became an adult, they became increasingly so: businesses closed; the town center turned ghost-like; homes had tarps on their roof and plastic over broken windows; dogs pulled at chains in yards littered with trash.

In 2011, my cousin, Andrew Droz Palermo, and I hatched a plan to collaborate on a documentary. We wanted to understand first-hand what it was really like for struggling families to live in this mined-out coal town. We filmed everything. The town was still beautiful, even in decay. But we knew this film had to be more than a nostalgia piece—it was about a real and urgent human experience.

The first boy we met was Appachey. Soon, we were welcomed into his home where his mother allowed us to witness her desperation, the deep bonds with the children in her care. I was often reminded of my experience as a kid, visiting Rich Hill twice a year. Once I got to town, there’d be a long list of neighbors and friends my grandparents made us visit. It didn’t matter that some of these folks had less than my grandparents—it was important “to pay our respects.” Everyone got the same handshake. As a teacher, my grandmother believed in the promise of every child—she would often say that there are no bad kids, and that everyone deserves respect. We are all equally worthy—no matter what our circumstances. That lesson stuck with me and in many ways became a theme for our film.

The American dream for these families remains elusive—because it is in large part based on a myth, grounded in the idea of the “rugged individual” and the notion of equal opportunity available for all.

Ultimately our film’s focus became three boys—Andrew, Harley & Appachey—all of whom were, as some might say, from “the wrong side of the tracks.” They were tough—that was part of the image and how they got by. But once we earned their trust, they dropped the façade. They could be vulnerable and reveal their fears and aspirations. They each have a unique struggle and their own reserves of resilience and humor. Each of their families gave us intimate access, to capture their lives from an up-close and unflinching perspective—never shying from complexity, frustration, and despair. They allowed us to capture the complicated relationship between poverty and family bonds, between community pride and desperation.

These boys were tough. Each was in a day-by-day survival mode—each in his own way yearning for self-worth. With so few resources, they get by on little more than instinct and family love. When we first met him, Andrew, 13, was just like a lot of American kids, except that his days were also often about meeting basic needs, like having food and hot water. Andrew prayed to God to help his mother with her health problems and his father find work through winter. Harley, 14, longed for the comfort of his imprisoned mother and struggled to control his anger and to stay out of jail himself. Still, Harley was always the first guy in the room to crack a joke and make us laugh. Appachey, 11, yearned for his mother’s love—but as a single mom with six kids, her attention was rare; he found solace in his skateboard.

As a mother myself, I couldn’t turn away. This would be more than a personal story about a particular place; this would be about kids and families in towns across America, who were isolated and, in large part, ignored. But if you got to know them, you could see their insight and their ambition. Just like most kids, they got really excited about fireworks and birthdays; they liked to dance, collect things, and try out different hairstyles.  No, they were not bad kids—and, yes, they wanted to tell their story because they wanted to be heard and to belong. Their hope for a normal life and a brighter future persisted: they too hoped that their hard work would be rewarded, and that even they could live the American dream.

The American dream for these families remains elusive—because it is in large part based on a myth, grounded in the idea of the “rugged individual” and the notion of equal opportunity available for all. After two years of listening to and documenting low-income families in rural America, I have witnessed a starkly unequal playing field. Kids who seem destined to repeat heart-breaking cycles of hardship that have been passed down from generations, emotional, and physical suffering, patterns of abuse, educations that end in 10th grade because there are no viable options, and families who never catch a break and don’t seem to be wanted by anyone or cared about anywhere.

How can you make it to class on time when you have no electricity and no alarm clock? How can you get ahead in school when your family moves constantly, and every other month, it’s a new teacher with new rules?  How can you think straight when you haven’t eaten in 24 hours or you haven’t slept because your bed is a blanket on the floor? How can college remotely be an option when the family’s most important goal is earning enough to keep the utilities on? And when you see your own parents struggle and suffer, abused before your eyes, how do you imagine a different road map for yourself?  

There are no easy answers. It’s certainly not simply about working hard and quitting smoking, because even when you work hard and don’t smoke, you still can make small mistakes that are catastrophic, your family may still live one paycheck away from eviction, and you can still be dismissed as “a kid from the wrong side of the tracks.” Part of the answer, however, is pretty simple: it’s being seen and supported, embraced by community, knowing that there are people outside your home who value you and your future.

This might mean mentorship, scholarships of different kinds—for moms, dads and kids. At its heart, it’s about social capital and second chances. What does that mean? Support, care, and mentoring for everybody. It means folks don’t get “written off.”  Many of us, from more privileged families have that kind of social capital and opportunity in spades and have never experienced the high wire act of living without it. A social safety net would mean that when a low-income family experiences a hardship or makes a misstep, the results don’t have to be devastating. No one gets left behind. 

In the end, our film Rich Hill became less about a town on the decline, and less even about an issue. It’s more about the promise of untapped potential. The problem is complex—and so will be the solution. It’s not about one acute need, but rather the condition and health of whole families. Ultimately, our film is an invitation to empathy, to share a connection with those who otherwise might be avoided, kids and families who might look rough on the outside, but who could right now could use our help and support.

Out of that place of connectedness and shared humanity, we hope audiences will question how we as Americans—as humans—justify denying resources and social capital to vulnerable families, who are, at the most fundamental level, so much like our own.