Governor: Film Portrays West Virginians as Inbreeds, Carnival Sideshows

Gov. Joe Manchin and others took offense Tuesday to a planned scene from an upcoming film starring Julianne Moore that they say stereotypes West Virginians as inbreeds and carnival sideshows.

The horror thriller "Shelter" is recruiting extras with unusual physical features for a scene in a "West Virginia holler," according to Donna Belajac Casting of Pittsburgh.

The casting call said the film is looking for extras who are extraordinarily tall or short, those with unusual body shapes and unusual facial features, especially eyes, and even people with physical abnormalities as long as they have normal mobility.

"It's clear that they have no real understanding of who the people of West Virginia are," Manchin said. "And that's not only unfortunate, but in this case offensive. Certainly it doesn't sound like a movie worth watching."

The casting call also advertises for a 9- to 12-year-old white girl with an "other-worldly look ... could be an albino or something along those lines — she's someone who is visually different and therefore has a closer contact to the gods and to magic. 'Regular-looking' children should not attend this open call."

Shooting for those scenes is scheduled to start Sunday in the Pittsburgh area.

Rudy Scalese, director of development for producer Nala Films in Los Angeles, didn't immediately return a telephone message Tuesday.

Casting agency director Donna Belajac was in a casting session Tuesday and unavailable for comment. She told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Monday that the announcement was not meant to stereotype people from West Virginia.

"We tried to word it in a way that's not offensive," she told the newspaper. "I hope it's not an offensive thing. It's not meant to be a generalization about everyone in West Virginia. That's why we put that it's in a 'holler' in the mountains."

The company's Web site specifies the scene as a "West Virginia holler."

The casting call also prompted criticism from U.S. Reps. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.; U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union.

"Why must it be automatically assumed by the surgically enhanced 'beautiful people' who populate Hollywood that those who live in the hills and hollows of places like West Virginia are all afflicted with physical abnormalities?" Roberts said.

"For the producers of this movie to issue such a blatantly insulting and demeaning casting call is not just a slap in the face to tens of thousands of West Virginians, but to millions of Americans who may not fit the 'norm' of Hollywood beauty," Roberts said.

Capito said West Virginians "are owed an apology for such careless and blatant stereotyping."

Byrd said, "Unfortunately, some in the filmmaking industry have decided that perpetuating stereotypes and insulting generations of West Virginians means cash at the box office."

The entertainment industry has long used negative Appalachian stereotypes, including 1972's "Deliverance," a three-time Academy Award-nominated film about a group of men whose Georgia river-rafting trip goes horribly wrong, and 2003 independent film "Wrong Turn, where youths on a hiking trip become prey to cannibalistic West Virginia mountain men.

Hollywood attempts at stereotypes haven't always been successful, though.

CBS hoped to remake the 1960s "Beverly Hillbillies" into a reality show in 2002, but tabled the idea after negative public reaction, including a protest by mine workers from West Virginia and Kentucky at CBS' parent company, Viacom.

In 2004, after an outcry from Appalachian residents, NBC scuttled a proposed rural-to-riches reality show "The High Life" that would have followed an Appalachian family's adjustments to a ritzy lifestyle in Beverly Hills. NBC cited "creative reasons," not the protests, as the reason the show wasn't pursued.

"It harkens back to a dark time in our nation's history when flimflam artists roamed the country making a quick buck with traveling 'freak' shows, displaying human beings who may have different bodily characteristics, in darkened cages," Roberts said. "I believe our society has progressed past that point — maybe not in Hollywood, but it has in other, more enlightened parts of America."