Saturday, March 10, 2007

Jeff Biggers' "The United States of Appalachia"

Jeff Biggers is the author of In the Sierra Madre, The United States of Appalachia, and other works including stories and radio programs.

Here he shares his ideas for casting the movie version of The United States of Appalachia, just released in paperback:
We're talking a sweeping epic here, spanning 250 years. A lot of popcorn. But, we're talking a local production; the movie for my book, The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment, would feature some great Appalachian actors, some of the most dramatic moments in American history, and enough scenery to make you wonder why you live elsewhere:

Imagine Johnny Depp, that great American original from eastern Kentucky, rousing a community of backwoods folks that had already defied the British since 1772 and elected their own independent judges and council -- he leads the charge at the Battle of Kings Mountain on the South/North Carolina border in 1780, where the Overmountain Men turned the tide of the American Revolution and stopped the British advance. A generation later, Depp would re-emerge as Elihu Embree, the fiery Appalachian abolitionist who published the first abolitionist newspaper in the United States, decades before William Lloyd Garrison's liberator; a century later, he would play the role of a labor organizer in the coal mines at the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War.

West Virginian Jennifer Garner would play Anne Royall, the "virago errant" from the mountains that took Washington DC by storm in the 1830s as the first female muckraker and editor/publisher of a newspaper that took on the religious fanatics and corrupt officials. She would emerge thirty years later as the young Rebecca Harding Davis, courted by the Bostonian elite in the 1860s for her groundbreaking social realism fiction on Appalachia that gave birth to literary naturalism in America.

Appalachians Andie MacDowell and Ashley Judd would join together as cotton mill girls in eastern Tennessee in 1929, leading a jazz-age walkout and strike by fashionable and sophisticated mountain girls, speeding down the back roads in their Model T to spread the news -- this takes place long before Daisy hops in that rig in the Great Gatsby. These actresses would emerge years later as authors Pearl S. Buck and Willa Cather, chatting about their Appalachian origins and influences, and those of Cormac McCarthy, Edward Abbey, Dorothy Allison, Thomas Wolfe, James Agee and Nikki Giovanni.

But we'd have to call on recent Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, of course, to play two key roles of Appalachian singers who made jazz and blues part of the American experience: Bessie Smith and Nina Simone.

And the role of Sequoyah, the great Cherokee inventor, goes to Wes Studi; Dwight Yoakam would have to play himself, as well as A.P. Carter of the Carter Family; Denzel Washington would play Martin Delany, the 19th century abolitionist and writer. Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton would make an appearance, as would a thousand other musicians. The rest of the roles: auto leader Walter Reuther, Black History Month founder Carter Woodson, blues father WC Handy, civil rights godfather Myles Horton, abolitionist John Rankin, and legendary New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs ... well, Kevin Kline would be fine as Ochs, walking down 42nd Street, reminding viewers that "All the News That's Fit to Print" comes from the Southern Mountains -- that the first Times Building is in Chattanooga.

West Virginian Morgan Spurlock would direct.
Jeff Biggers has worked as a writer, educator, radio correspondent, and community organizer across the United States, Europe, India and Mexico. His award-winning stories have appeared on NPR, PRI, and in scores of travel, literary and music magazines, and national and foreign newspapers. He has been a commentator on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and for Pacific News Service national syndication. Visit his official website to learn more about Biggers and his work.

--Marshal Zeringue