The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia made me feel like a horsefly at the county dump. Everywhere I looked, there was garbage and piles of unpleasantness, but damned if it didn’t attract me.
Director Julien Nitzberg used film from a 1991 documentary and new footage to shine a spotlight on the Whites, a multi-generational clan of mountain dancers, moonshiners, cons, and killers, not to mention the terror of Boone County, West Virginia. The Whites — from barefoot young’uns to toothless elders — allowed Nitzberg to film them in bad times and in … well, I’m not sure that there are any good times for this bunch, although I’m certain they would argue the point.
One of the challenges of watching this movie is that each White is a natural-born storyteller, blessed with the con man’s gift of gab, usually through nicotine-stained teeth and whiskey-choked larynxes. But how much of what they say is actually true? It’s tempting, for example, to listen as Jesco White professes his admiration for Charles Manson and to assume that, like any good reality-TV star, Jesco simply knows how to hook his listener.
But then Nitzberg turns his camera on Boone County law enforcement, and the sheriff rattles off a litany of crimes committed by Whites over the years. We learn who was shot, who was killed, and who was imprisoned. We watch Kirk White snort drugs just hours after she gives birth to yet another White. A judge means business when he sentences Brandon Poe to 50 years in prison for shooting Mamie White’s boyfriend in the face. And “Wimpy” isn’t kidding when he reveals what’s tattooed on his penis.
There’s a good deal of exploitation in a documentary like this, both by the filmmakers and by the self-serving subjects. We are often invited to laugh at their outlaw exploits. Yet when I wasn’t gawking at a drunken “girls’ night out” or marveling at Jesco’s clog-dancing routine, I felt … depressed.
We see little soul-searching by the hell-raising Whites, nor any sleepless nights when the government checks don’t arrive in the mail. The coal-mining life of these hill people, despite all their whooping and dancing and drinking, is not very pretty. Sort of like what you see at the county dump. Grade: B+
Director: Julien Nitzberg Featuring: Jesco White, Mamie White Release: 2009
Watch the Trailer (click here)
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