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REEL REVIEW: The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

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By Hunter Rothwell

The White family of Boone
County, West Virginia, is
infamous in Appalachian folklore. That unique mountain area
between Northern Alabama and
Southern New York State has
produced a history of moonshining, clan feuding, and a culture
of rebellion and lawlessness. The
people there are often stereotyped
as hard partying, uneducated, and
prone to impulsive violence.
In his newest indie documentary, “The Wild and Wonderful
White’s of West Virginia,” director Julian Nitzberg, with executive producer Johnny Knoxville of
“Jackass” fame, records day-to-day
adventures of a family who are the
last remnants of an outlaw mountain people as old as America.
The Whites first gained attention
when family patriarch D. Ray White
was profiled in a Smithsonian Folkways documentary called, “Talking
Feet: Solo Southern Dance: Buck,
Flatfoot and Tap.” He was known as
the last of the mountain tap-dancers,
before being murdered in 1985. D.
Ray and his wife Bertie Mae had 13
children; four of their sons aspired
to fill the shoes of their father and
become his heir apparent. Jesco
White continued the tradition, and
was featured in a 1991 PBS special,
“The Dancing Outlaw,” that became
a cult classic.
“The Wonderful Whites of West
Virginia” follows the exploits of
Bertie Mae White, her surviving
children and an ever-growing number
of grandchildren. Interviews with
Boone County law enforcement and
attorneys explain the White family
is involved in shoot-outs, robberies,
drug dealing, pill popping, wild
partying and murder.
“The Whites live at three times the
speed of ordinary lives,” said director
Julian Nitzberg in a 2010 interview.
“They have way more drama than
most people could handle without
going mad.”
In a tragic yet comical scene, Jesco describes his “brain damage” from huffing gasoline for ten years—he just can’t
figure out which brain cell was actually
affected. This hasn’t slowed old Jesco
down; he still loves “gettin’ plastered
and ripped out of the frame.”
Over the past decade, Jesco, his
sister, Mamie, and the White family gained attention when their
lives showed up in popular country
music. “Jessico” by the Kentucky
Headhunters, “Comin’ to Your
City” by Big & Rich, and “The
Legend of D. Ray White” by Hank
Williams III are a few examples of
White family inspired songs. Hank
III appears in the documentary and
acoustically performs three of his
popular songs to the accompaniment of Jesco’s skillful tap-dancing.
Some will find this family entertaining and funny, others will
be awed by the spectacle of their
unbelievable exploits, and still
others will be offended by the pill-
snorting, foul-mouthed, hardcore
ways of a group of people who do
not understand the word discretion. The Whites are a product of
a mountain culture isolated by geography for generations. A signifi-
cant theme resonates throughout
the film, concerning the powerful
forces of poverty and corruption
that are the result of a dominating
coal industry.
“Even though they might be the
most hated family, well, they are
probably the most free. They are
the true rebels of the South,” says
Hank III in the film.
With technology bringing us
closer and making us more alike,
the uniqueness of the Whites is
becoming a rare phenomenon in a
country founded on personal freedom, individualism and cultural
variety. The Whites are a deep
and smart group, but also self-destructive in their love of sex, drugs
and crime. Bo White put it best:
“We’re good people. Everybody
puts us down here and there, but
you can’t believe everything you
hear. Seeing is believing…from my
heart we’re just right down, dirty,
good ol’ people—hillbillies.”

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