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The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

Posted by Adam Krause on June 8, 2010 at 1:02 PM

“Who the hell are the Whites of West Virginia and what’s so special about them where they get a feature-length documentary to tell their story?


If you’re like me then you’re asking yourself this very question, which is the same query I had running through my head before screening the film for review. It doesn’t take long, however, to reach an answer to that question after the movie begins. So what is the answer? Who are the Whites?


The filmmakers wanted that answer to sound something like this: A group of misunderstood southern outlaws that nobly do whatever they want by ignoring society’s norms and living by their own rules. The real answer: A family of poor, white trash drug addicts with no jobs, no morals and no intelligence whatsoever. Sounds harsh but allow me to elaborate.


The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is the controversial documentary from director Julien Nitzberg that focuses on the “notorious” White family from rural BooneCounty, WV, a poverty-stricken area of the south that has been unfortunately victimized by the mining industry.


In the film, we are given a rundown of the White family tree that starts with their patriarch, D. Ray White, a coal minor with a knack for mountain dancing. In fact, there was a time when D. Ray was considered the greatest mountain dancer in the country before being murdered in 1985, leaving behind a wife and thirteen children.


Of those thirteen children, only eight are still alive today. The film introduces us to all of them, while choosing to only focus on a few here and there. The most notable is Jesco White, the family celebrity who inherited his father’s skills and carried on the family’s mountain dancing legacy.


He and his wicked dance moves were chronicled in the 1991 PBS short film The Dancing Outlaw (in which Nitzberg was a producer). The short was so successful that it spawned a sequel, a guest-starring role on Roseanne and apparently a life of fame and never-ending attention that has ultimately led Jesco down a road of alcoholism and depression.


Despite the fact that he is part of this family, Jesco does have a subtle charisma that is displayed occasionally throughout, which appoints him as one of the brighter spots of the film.


Then there is his sister Kirk White, a middle-aged single mother with such a thick southern drawl, subtitles are sometimes needed just to figure out what she's saying. The cameras first interview Kirk when she's talking about her desire to slit her ex-husband's throat and then cut to six months later where she's snorting crushed prescription pills in a hospital room minutes after giving birth to a child.


If that isn't enough, Kirk and the rest of the White family are then shocked and appalled to learn that the state has taken the baby away from her. The film tries to both redeem itself and Kirk White by documenting her attempt to retain custody with a pathetic stint at rehab but for the sake of that young child, I truly hope it never happens.  


Produced by everybody’s favorite jackass, Johnny Knoxville and his Dickhouse Productions are the creative team responsible for the film. It'sdifficult to determine whether their intentions were to actually produce a credible anthropological case study or to merely exploit the White family and their unconventional behaviors purely for the audience's shock and awe. Regardless, Knoxville once again proves that if there is a job that calls for videotaping a group of jackasses sitting around an apartment acting stupid, he's the man to call.


When making The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, the filmmakers documented the lives of the Whites for an entire year to get the final result that is this film. In hindsight, they probably could have just filmed them for a night and saved themselves the trouble. The footage mainly consists of the family smoking weed, snorting prescription drugs, drinking booze and talking about how they don’t care what anyone thinks of them and how the do what they want.


Of course this is all set to a soundtrack of nothing but country music, the same genre of music that reveres this type of culture. The White family has been the subject of many songs from country artists including the likes of Big and Rich and Hanks Williams III, who is even considered a family friend to the Whites and appears in the movie numerous times playing guitar alongside of Jesco as he dances away. Never have I been so glad to dislike country.


About fifteen minutes into the running time of the film, an interview takes place with West Virginia Defense Attorney Peter Hendricks. In an effort to demonstrate how Boone County isn’t all a bunch of degenerate families like the Whites, he tells of how a young male teenager, not too far from where the Whites reside, has just been granted a full-paid scholarship to attend the prestigious school of MIT. He then asks bluntly, “Why isn’t anyone making a documentary about him?”


It’s a thought-provoking question, one that I don’t think I want answered. Because really, if subjects like the White family are what entertains us and grabs our attention so much so that they can be made the subject of a feature-length documentary, then who is more to blame, them or us?   


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