Alabama Snake Review: The Real Hillbilly Elegy
This week, HBO premiered a new documentary about a peculiar incident that took place in Scottsboro, Alabama, in the 1990s. Y’all know what else was a peculiar incident in 90s-era Scottsboro? Me. So here’s my review of Alabama Snake.
American Horror Story: Appalachia
image via HBO
A few weeks ago, I was going to write something about the film version of Hillbilly Elegy. After thinking it over, though, I decided that I really didn’t have anything to say that someone hadn’t already said. For one thing, I never read the book. For another, I’m not familiar enough with the area to lend insight.
Because despite what some people seem to think, the Appalachians cover a lot of ground. They stretch from northern Alabama all the way into Canada. However, when most people think about Appalachia, they think of some Deliverance-esque nightmare. Maybe not that specifically, but something that’s definitely taking place in the South. For instance, look at Rotten Tomatoes, whose critic consensus for Elegy places the movie in “the not-so-deep South.” The bulk of that film takes place in Ohio, which may be south of something, but ain’t The South.
I should know. I was born in the Appalachian South in north-central Alabama. And in the early 90s, I lived in Scottsboro. Scottsboro is a midsize town, and when my family moved there, it was probably best known as the setting for an infamous miscarriage of justice, the Scottsboro Boys case. Or as the home of Unclaimed Baggage, a store that sells what it says on the tin. And then came the fall of 1991.
In My Name…They Shall Take Up Serpents
On October 4th, a rattlesnake bit Darlene Summerford. That’s basically the only detail from that night that is known and provable. Darlene told police that her husband, Glenn Summerford, forced her at gunpoint to pick up the snake.
image via public domain
Now you might be wondering some things, like “what” and “the heck.” I should mention that both Summerfords were members of a “Signs Following” church. These Pentecostal churches follow the Holiness movement, but they’re distinct from other faiths in a few major aspects. Number one, they handle snakes.
You see, there’s a couple of verses in the book of Mark that govern their beliefs:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
So they demonstrate their faith by doing things like drinking strychnine or touching live electrical wires. But all anyone really remembers are those Monday-to-Friday snakes.
Alabama Snake Review
You might be thinking that Alabama Snake is a review of the crime. But it’s clear from its description that it’s not. Instead it “highlights the story of Pentecostal minister Glenn Summerford,” and boy, does it.
We get a little description of the events of that night, which bookend the film. However, the bulk of the documentary is devoted to telling Glenn’s story, from his childhood until that fateful, snakeful night. Thanks to Dr. Thomas Burton, an historian with a focus on Appalachian folklore, we hear that story straight from Glenn (via cassette tapes). The documentary also uses dramatic reenactments to illustrate what we’re hearing. They’re very fine, but I didn’t think they added much.
image via HBO
And that was my biggest issue with the documentary–it felt too surface-level. Yes, I learned a lot about Glenn, but I would have liked a deeper examination of some of the issues raised. For example, in one of the tapes, Glenn makes a serious accusation of abuse. Specifically, he says that Darlene sexually abused the sons he had before their relationship. We see in onscreen text that the two boys are split on the issue. At the same time, though, despite Darlene’s presence in the film, the filmmakers apparently never ask her about it.
In addition, I would have liked a deeper look into the aftermath. During the trial that followed, some members of Glenn’s congregation stood by his side. Darlene had to return to that world afterward. What was that like? We don’t really know. And I was reminded again of Hillbilly Elegy. It just left a bad taste in my mouth that this guy mined the worst moments of his family’s lives to make a name for himself. I don’t think that’s what these filmmakers are doing. I just wished they’d given over more of the story to Darlene.
Because it’s fine if they want to look more closely at the crime, even if they want to ask questions. That’s what a good documentary should do, after all. I just didn’t think they looked close enough.
The Haunting of This House
Because one of their other intentions, according to their blurb, is to look at “the investigation and trial that haunted Southern Appalachia for decades.” But did it, though? As someone who watched it all unfold in real time, I can’t say that I’m that haunted. Instead, I’m reminded of something author Allison Glock said:
Southerners take no issue with absurdity. We don’t pretend the world is logical or fair. If there were a signature regional gesture, it would be a shrug. For us, crazy happens. Better to sit back, enjoy the show, and drink the tea.
But I could be (and I probably am) biased. Unlike some viewers, I didn’t need subtitles to understand a single speaker in this doc. I heard them just fine. I just wanted to hear more.
Let us know what you think on our social media or in the comments.
featured image via HBO
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.