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The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia

The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia

By Paul Costello • January 20th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Tribeca Film

Original release: May 5th, 2010
Running time: 88 minutes

Director: Julien Nitzberg

Cast: Jesco White, Mamie White, Bo White, Poney White, Sue Bob White, Bertie May White

The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia

“Way down in West Virginia, there’re some people that are one of a kind.” This is the opening line to the song D-Ray White by Hank Williams III, musician and friend of the family he refers to in the song, and who are the subject of Julien Nitzberg’s documentary The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia.

The first time I saw this film, I was appalled by it. Ignoring any other considerations about what the film may have to say on any particular topic, my strongest reaction by far was flat-out disgust with the family at its heart. All I could see was a family of criminals, thugs and crazy people… and I’m certainly not alone in this view. Pretty much from the film’s first days of exhibition at festivals, audiences were split into those captivated by the film’s frank and unflinching look at the White family, and those as repulsed by them as I was. There’s so much to object to with their lifestyle, it’s tough to even conceive of why they would be worth the time and energy required for documentary filmmaking, not to mention the time of an audience. Just what could there be to gain by looking at these people?

That said, storytelling in all of its forms have never been located just to the stories of the good, the righteous, the true. Many have focused on unashamedly bad people because in looking at them, perhaps we can learn something of greater value to society at large, even if the process of learning is deeply off-putting and rage-inducing.

It should be noted that the Whites already have something of cinematic legacy. The patriarch of the family is the late D. Ray White, so-called “last king of the mountain tap-dancers,” a man made famous for his unique style of dancing, and who was in the midst of making Talking Feet, a film about solo Southern dancing, when he was killed in a shootout. One of his four sons, Jesco White, was the one who took up his father’s calling, which led to him being the focus of the documentary, Dancing Outlaw, and a subsequent non-documentary film, White Lightnin’. So, the Whites are no stranger to fame, and therein lies one of the first points of observation within this film.

The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia

As famous as the Whites are, at least to some degree within the United States, that’s pretty much nothing compared to the level of infamy and notoriety they hold in their home, Boone County, West Virginia. The film opens with a few establishing shots of the county, immediately followed by an off-screen voice asking certain residents about the reputation of the White family. Those who don’t decline to comment on that furnish us with concerns, notions and general impressions of the Whites. “If you mention their names, you get a certain reaction from people”, “They don’t want to conform to any authority”, “Some of them are good, some of them are entertaining, and a whole lot of them are just trouble and dangerous”, “They are the true rebels of the South.”

It’s rather fitting that last comment comes from Hank Williams III, the man who wrote a folk song about the Whites, since this taps into this idea of the Southern Rebel Spirit. From the days of the American Civil War, the states south of the Mason-Dixon line have held onto a romanticised notion of the rebel as the hero, defying governments and lawmen and living the way they want, even being willing to fight for that ideal. (In fairness, the American South are not the only ones onto hold this idea, but it certainly is one heavily engrained in the culture). But the Whites have, for some, come to typify this rebellious spirit, making them folk heroes of a sort. Exactly the kind that they write songs about.

The Whites are clearly the kind of family that could only have come from a very specific place, which the film does make some effort to impress as a point. Though one of the Boone County residents states that they don’t represent the county or state in which they live, that they represent only themselves, much is offered as contrary to this idea. Culturally-speaking, they’re intrinsically tied to their place in the world and its history. The music they listen to and inspire, The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginiathe industry some of them worked in, the heritage they have that brought them to the attention of others in the first place, it all gets tied closely to them. Even the family members themselves talk about Boone County as a place that holds you in whatever rut you already find yourself, and that the only one to make any kind of decent life for himself and his family, away from the drugs and crime the rest are so steeped in, was the only one to leave West Virginia for Minnesota, putting six states between himself and his old life. West Virginia is “the Mountain State,” and these are mountain people.

Oh, yes, the crime issue. The Whites are unashamed criminals in almost every respect. They will openly discuss the trouble they’ve caused and gotten themselves into, including drug use, drug dealing, assault, fraud, even attempted murder (which they will openly admit on camera was fully intended to be outright murder). They even engage in some of this behaviour on camera, with little concern as to whether or not it gets them in trouble later. They don’t mind the trouble. In fact, they rather like it. According to a few people interviewed, the Whites are the family that law enforcement have to deal with more than any other. Another brief section of the film recounts some of the violent exploits of some of the Whites, and it is frankly some horrific and chilling stuff to hear. Exact quote: “I had to hit it again just watch the blood flow, cause it turned me on.” The context for this specific quote isn’t given in the film, outside of a montage of other such admissions of criminal behaviour, but it’s still unsettling.

A common sociological factor often linked with crime is poverty, and this is certainly a factor in the lives of the Whites. They live in a not particularly affluent part of town, the things they own aren’t great. For all intents and purposes, they live a simple life. The film mentions the Whites “don’t expect a whole lot outta life.” Their aspirations are near non-existent, they live only for the immediate, and they don’t mind manipulating the system in order to get what they want. Seemingly raised under the example of the coal mining companies, they were taught to cheat and defraud to make their way, and now they’ve got their way, they won’t give it up for anyone. The traditional isolation of their mountain heritage, their low expectations of life, their willingness to fight anyone and everyone for any reason at all mean that the Whites are a product of, as well as a constant contributing factor to, the cycle of poverty and crime within Boone County.

Even just as a family, it’s difficult to know what to make of them. At times, they seem so incredibly close, but are just as guilty of committing heinous acts against each other. They offer support to each other when they need it (such as Kirk’s attempts at rehabilitation, or the The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginiagenuinely incredible feat of Bertie Mae White raising so many children), but then there are times when they try to kill each other… I’m not exaggerating there. At the time of filming, 22-year old Brandon Poe was awaiting sentencing for attempting to murder his uncle. Perhaps the easiest thing to surmise is that, when all is said and done, you mess with one White, you mess with them all. And I think that’s how most families would describe themselves.

The film does make note that the White family is one that seems to be plagued by trouble and death more than most. It would seem that the way they live has fostered in them a sense of fatalism, a lack of fear regarding death. Jesco White perhaps describes it best when, standing at the graves of his dearly deceased, he says, “we’re just livin’ like as a story, that we’re already dead, but we’re still alive too, get to tell about it.” Perhaps the only positive spin on this attitude comes when, asked if life is a good thing, Mamie responds, “I ain’t never fuckin’ seen it bein’ good. Come in this world with nothin’, I guess I’ll die with nothin’… but at least the world knows who the fuck we are.”

As a documentary film, The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia actually is a compelling and interesting work, with many points for post-film discussion on crime, poverty and the cyclical nature of a lifestyle built around the pursuit of instant gratification. That said, I’m not now, and likely never will be able to completely look beyond my repulsion with the White family presented here. On top of that, the moments where the tone of Nitzberg’s film seems to perpetuate this idea of them being folk heroes, or anything that’s charming or charismatic, is something I find profoundly objectionable. Nevertheless, it did what it set out to do… I know exactly who the Whites are now.

The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia

Paul Costello

Paul Costello

Paul Costello is a critic, blogger and former film editor with a degree in filmmaking from the University of the West of Scotland. He’s been watching movies for as long as he can remember, and began the process of writing about every movie he owns on his blog: acinephilesjourney.blogspot.co.uk. He’ll be at that for a while. He’s also the resident film writer at TheStreetSavvy.com.

You can follow him on Twitter @PaulCinephile.

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