Humanizing the American Poor: A Review of the Documentary Rich Hill

“We’re not trash. We’re good people.”

Early on in Andrew Palmero’s and Tracy Tragos’s documentary Rich Hill, Andrew, age 13, delivers this message. Andrew is an adolescent boy subject to a seemingly endless cycle of broken homes and extreme poverty. In documenting the life of Andrew, the directors opt to forgo narration, choosing instead to document his life as it happens. Though the film is void of an explicit narrative, it sheds light on the problems plaguing impoverished families. It provides the viewer with strong ethnographical evidence that supports sociological and economic evidence of the limited upward economic mobility in America as well as the cyclical nature of poverty.

Throughout the film, the directors juxtapose extremely patriotic shots of the town’s Fourth of July celebrations with shots of Andrew struggling to achieve a normal life. At first, I thought these shots served only to make the film more aesthetically pleasing. But as the film progressed, it was clear that they served to demonstrate that, despite what we may think, the American Dream is not always within reach for the extremely poor. For a kid like Andrew, who is forced to bathe in water heated by irons and coffeepots, the day-to-day battle to survive poverty makes long-term planning all but impossible. Furthermore, given his parents’ lack of education and his inconsistent attendance at school, it is very clear that he lacks the cultural capital necessary to understand how one can attain a higher education and a successful career, much less actually achieve these things.

In a similar manner, Palmero and Tragos also include shots of a Ferris wheel at the local carnival in order to represent the cyclical nature of poverty. The academic world has long understood that poverty has a propensity to be passed along from generation to generation. Economic data tells us that the offspring of families in lowest income quintile have the smallest probability of ending up in the highest income quintile (Norton et. al. 2011).

Similarly, sociological literature tells us that parenting styles perpetuate income levels across generations. In her book Unequal Childhoods, Annette Lareau (2003) draws distinctions between the way in which lower and upper classes approach parenting as well as the consequences of the different approaches. She explains that wealthier parents use a child-rearing approach called “concerted cultivation” that is characterized by very active and guided parenting in order to foster the growth of their child’s talents, opinions, and goals. This approach is adopted to prepare children for future academic and occupational endeavors. On the other hand, lower class parents tend to let their children grow and mature more on their own, through a “natural growth” parenting style. As a result, these children are dependent on the institutions they are a part of. They are less likely to seek out alternative guidance or directly question authority. Furthermore, lower class kids are far more likely to spend their time “hanging out” instead of participating in organized extracurricular activities that ultimately are rewarding in the long run (Lareau 2003).

Throughout the film it is apparent that Andrew’s parents’ do not use the concerted cultivation approach. Andrew spends the majority of his afternoons aimlessly playing. The fact that Andrews’ parents frequently move houses in the pursuit of new jobs further eliminates any sense of institutional consistency that would have otherwise existed in Andrew’s life. One cannot help but worry that Andrew will be subject to the same cycle of poverty that his parents experienced as a result of his upbringing. At the conclusion of the film, it is clear that the use of a Ferris wheel could not be a more apt metaphor for Andrew’s family’s life as well as the rural poor as a whole.

Unfortunately Andrew’s experiences are far from unique and are characteristic of the struggles that most young, poor Americans face. It is not clear by the end of the film what could or should be done in order to reverse these troubling trends. While the film fails in this regard, it does deserve considerable praise for its ability to humanize the American poor and strike down stereotypes of a lazy lower class unwilling to work their way out of poverty. It is abundantly clear at the end of the film that Andrew and his family are indeed good people. They are just facing numerous, overwhelming challenges that make it nearly impossible for them to break out of poverty.


3 thoughts on “Humanizing the American Poor: A Review of the Documentary Rich Hill”

  1. Brooks,
    I very much enjoyed reading your post. Though I have never seen the film “Rich Hill”, I am now intrigued and plan on watching it. I am also interested in exploring possible parallels between “Rich Hill” and “American Winter,” another documentary which focuses on poverty in America. I feel that “American Winter” achieved many of the same effects as “Rich Hill,” such as dispelling the myth of the deserving poor and humanizing those who fall into poverty. In your opinion, are these two films similar? How are their portrayals of the poor similar or different?

  2. I loved this! I’ve never seen “Rich Hill” either, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have understood the use of the Ferris wheel as a metaphor. I agree with Stephen’s comment that this documentary and “American Winter” seem very similar, and probably wouldn’t have thought about that connection on my own (thanks, Stephen!). I loved how you connected Lareau’s research about concerted cultivation to the documentary and your analysis about Stephen’s (nonexistent) relationship with institutions. It’s hard not to feel discouraged after reading about Andrew and knowing how common his case is in America. But I think documentaries like this, ones that humanize while simultaneously dispelling the myths surrounding them, and more people learning and spreading information about inequality in America–like how you’re doing– are a step in the right direction 🙂

  3. Hey Brooks- great job with this blog post. I am definitely (like Stephen) planning on watching “Rich Hill” because if it is anything like “American Winter” I think I would like it a lot. I am particularly interested in how the filmmakers did not narrate the film and instead let the experiences of Andrew color the narrative. I can see that choice having a dramatic and effective impact on the viewer than a traditional documentary where narration and statistics are inserted throughout the film. Cutting the focus down to one singular families’ individual experience is effective enough, if not more effective, in humanizing America’s poor.

    I am interested to know how you think this film would change if it followed the life of an African American family. If there are stereotypes about America’s white poor, there are exponentially more about America’s black poor. How might following a black family help to contradict widely held stereotypes about poor black neighborhoods, families, and people? And why do you think the documentary film-makers decided to follow a white family? I hope there are more documentaries like this that focus on the black poor and how terribly wronged they are in American Society.

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