The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, directed by Julien Nitzberg. (USA) – World Premiere, Documentary. Shoot-outs, robberies, gas-huffing, drug dealing, pill popping, murders, and tap dancing — what do these all have in common? The White Family. From executive producers Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine comes a shocking portrait of Boone County, West Virginia’s most notorious and surly family. Nitzberg spends a year with multiple generations of the White family in this outlandish doc featuring the family’s dancing muse, Jesco White (star of the cult classic documentary Dancing Outlaw).
“The legend of D Ray White will never die like a rebel yell” – Hank III
“There’s a difference between southerners and mountain people” director Julien Nitzberg explained, “mountain people have no interest in conforming with society, they just want to be left the hell alone. Their heritage is indentured servitude and when their servitude was up, they retreated to the mountains to get the hell away from everyone else.” That’s part of what makes this film so interesting. These outlaws seem to be the farthest from our culture as possible, yet they embody a lot of what we’re all about at our core. I first heard about the White family from Hank Williams III’s song “D Ray White”. I live in Brooklyn, NYC and am about as northern as they come. My mother’s side of the family’s roots are in Western North Carolina and I am proud of my southern heritage. When this movie was announced, I was afraid that the Whites would be portrayed negatively, exploiting their differences and making them the clown for us to laugh at. The director felt the same way. The documentary Dancing Outlaw about Jesco White (D Ray’s son) from 1992 is cut toward comedy and he wanted this movie to be more respectful. For those of you who don’t know the story, here’s amazon.com’s description: This unscripted, strikingly unique documentary film, is a revealing portrait of the nearly extinct “Hillbilly” culture that focuses on Mountain Dancer Jesco White’s uphill battle against abject poverty, drug abuse, petty crime and mental instability. In his struggle to live up to his father’s legacy as the finest mountain dancer in Appalachia, he leans on Jesus, Elvis Presley, and his wife, Norma Jean. There are parts of it on youtube and I’m now awaiting the full dvd in the mail.
This movie shows the hard living and hard times that have befallen the Whites. Unbelievable loss and tough times follow them throughout the story. Jesco even says “It’s just strange how everything happened in our family. It seems like our lives have just been a party and we’re just living the life as a story.” The beauty comes through in Birtie Mae White, may she rest in peace. She was mother of everyone, adopting all the children who’d been abandoned or needed a mom that they couldn’t get at home. There’s a shot of her and all the children she’s raised and it’s a great example of the love and stick-togetherness of the Whites and their extended family. There are also insane amounts of self-destructive behaviors and decisions that just blow your mind. As much as I can sit here and list the reasons why anyone should not snort anything off the top of a toilet bowl in a dive bar, I’m not going to throw stones from my glass house. My heart broke right along with Kirk when she left the maternity ward of the hospital without her baby because Child Protective Services found drugs in her little system. She was completely lost and shattered. She then got her shit together and got help. As of last night, she’s still doing well and keeping her head on straight.
My favorite parts of the movie are Mamie’s costume changes. She only wears Hank III t-shirts. Julien said she refused to wear any other shirt. Whenever there is a new one, Hank sends it on and it gets added to her collection. Sitting in the theater with my Hank III Devil’s Brew shirt watching her wear hers was too cool for school. Oh and when Hank III is playing guitar and singing for Jesco to dance on the table (in the picture above) I sang right along. I thought other people in theater sang with me and then I realized it was just me and Jesco singing with Hank and that gave me a fun set of goosebumps.
Since this movie wasn’t finished until just this past Tuesday, I am of the first to see it, even before the Whites. I’m super curious about their reaction as I can’t imagine a portrayal of my life being flattering in my eyes. I think Hank III said it best by “Even though they might be the most hated family, they’re probably the most free. They are the true rebels of the south.”
Also, here’s an essay for the Huffington Post written by Julien Nitzberg that gets much more into it in his humle opinion.