Friday, March 04, 2011


If that ain’t country...

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
A prosecuting attorney from West Virginia named J. Parker Bazzle II sits in front of a film camera and relates an anecdote about a retired Circuit Court judge who once mused that if you excluded 10 different Boone County families from that area “you’d cut the crime rate in about half.” The documentary featuring Bazzle’s words is Julien Nitzberg’s The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, a warts-and-all examination of a Mountain State clan whose activities — according to a montage of interviewees, mostly representing the police and legal system — include larceny, prescription fraud, shootings, armed robbery, embezzlement, forgery, drug cases, burglary, vice — “things like that,” nods a county sheriff matter-of-factly.

When asked by the off-screen interviewer if the White family would make the cut of the 10 families on the judge’s list Bazzle responds: “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Whites would have been one of those 10 families.” Idolized by some, hated by many more, the family unit at the center of Wild and Wonderful Whites sets the bar higher than ever before in the Dysfunctional Family Olympics, and though the film is defended by a number of film critics for its humane depiction of some truly unpleasant individuals, in my opinion the exploitative elements prominently on display in its first hour completely overpower any attempts to shed a serious light on its subjects by the homestretch.

Director Nitzberg and his crew followed the close-knit Whites (once described by New York magazine as “the Hatfields and McCoys all rolled into one”) for one year; their day-to-day routine sashaying before the camera’s unblinking eye. Family members smoke pot, abuse the pharmaceuticals of their choice and relate tales of hell-raising and violence with all the excitement of a kid’s first Christmas. As one interviewee in the film succinctly summarizes: “The word 'discretion' is a word that...undoubtedly they don't know...they don't understand what it means and they wouldn't practice it if they did.” The completed documentary made film festival rounds in 2009 before receiving limited theatrical release in 2010.
We become acquainted with a passel of Whites through Wild and Wonderful, but the major players include:

D. Ray White — Patriarch of the White clan, whom viewers learn about via archival footage and family recollections. According to his daughter Mamie, D. Ray was “the last king of the mountain tap dancers,” and the former coal miner was just starting to use his terpsichorean skills to achieve fame and fortune (by appearing in a documentary on Southern dance entitled Talking Feet: Solo, Buck, Flatfoot and Tap) when he was shot and killed by one of his fellow Boone Countians, Steve Roe, in 1985. White’s dancing prowess was passed on to his four sons…but two of them met equally grisly ends (one son shot himself in the head thinking he had emptied the clip from his gun).

Bertie Mae White — aka “The Miracle Woman”; as D. Ray’s widow, she earned that appellation by raising a total of 34 children — some her own, some taken in when they were abandoned by other families — and keeping a sense of humor despite the tragedies and nefarious goings-on that permeate the White family. The film gets off to an I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening start with members of her family drinking and drugging at her birthday party while she shakes her head in astonishment. Sadly, Bertie Mae succumbs to a stroke and passes on during the course of the film, an event that affects several members of the family in an admittedly moving fashion.

Jesco White — One of two surviving sons who inherited both his father’s dancing talent, Jesco boogies up a storm at the drop of a hat throughout Wild and Wonderful in a style that mixes clogging with tap dancing. Jesco himself was the subject of a documentary entitled Dancing Outlaw that aired on West Virginia Public Television in 1991; it attracted a cult following and made the man so well-known outside his home state that he even appeared on an episode of the sitcom Roseanne. Immortalized in songs and ballads by musicians such as Big & Rich, the Kentucky Headhunters and Hank Williams III (who appears in the film), Jesco at first glance seems like a grinnin’, shufflin’ good ol’ boy who just likes to dance and have a good time. But there’s a darker side to Mr. White: he suffers from severe depression, indulges in casual drinking and drug-taking and proudly displays a tattoo on his back of both Elvis Presley and Charles Manson. He’s also killed a few too many brain cells as a result of his life of wretched excess: one interviewee in the movie jokes that Jesco huffed so much gasoline as a young’un that he could tell you if it was regular or high-test with one whiff.

Mamie White — Eldest child of D. Ray and Bertie, who describes herself as “the biggest and the meanest and the baddest of the Whites.” Mamie was also featured in Dancing Outlaw (demonstrating her love of four-wheeling in an old Ford pickup truck) and there are some who say she’s the real “outlaw” of the family, a cigarette-voiced skank who philosophizes on any subject under the sun accompanied with liberal uses of the f-word. Only one member of Mamie’s brood takes center stage in Wild and Wonderful, and that’s eldest daughter Mousie — who celebrates her release from prison (“This time I’m free…no parole…no shit”) by tracking down her husband Charles (“He’s a bastard and a cheater”)…a ferociously laid-back individual who spent the bulk of his time during his wife’s incarceration shacked up with his girlfriend.

Bernadine “Bo” White-Cook — One of Mamie and Jesco’s sisters (and a self-described “pothead”) who is sort of upstaged in the film by her daughter Kirk (see below). She also has a son named Derek (who answers to “Derkie”) who in one scene rattles off a list of his favorite prescription drugs and then shakes a bottle filled with pills, terming it “the Boone County mating call.” (I’m ashamed to admit that I laughed out loud at this.)

Susan Raye “Kirk” White — Daughter of Bo; she commands a great deal of attention during the film when she wages a custody fight for her newborn daughter Monica with Child Protective Services — unaware that a scene in the film where she snorts pills in her hospital room while Monica sleeps only a few feet away might have something to do with this “injustice.” In her defense, Kirk enters a drug rehab program and cleans herself up in order to become a fit mother for Monica and son Tylor, a colorful little lad prone to flipping the bird with both hands whenever his father (Kirk’s husband Dennis, who she stabbed with a knife) is mentioned.

Poney White — The other surviving son of D. Ray and the only member of the clan to leave Boone County, relocating to Minnesota and finding honest work as a house painter. The filmmakers spend only a brief amount of time with Poney and his family, because as the "white sheep" of the Whites he does not make for interesting documentary material.

Sue Ann “Sue Bob” White — The youngest child of D. Ray and Bertie Mae and a former stripper who boasts: “I’ve always been the sexiest one of the family.”

Wait for it…

O…kay. Sue Bob has a son named Brandon who anxiously awaits the outcome of a courtroom trial in which he’s charged with a number of offenses that ultimately boil down to “I shot dude in the face.” Brandon never lets his cheerful optimism flag, believing that he’ll probably receive an alternative sentence because “my judge likes me…we get along good.” So enamored is the judge of the charismatic Brandon that he sentences young Poe to 50 years…which means he’ll be eligible for parole in 25, something that does not escape Mama Sue Bob’s notice: “He’ll be 47 years old…I’ll be dead and gone.” (Shortly after the film’s completion Sue Bob was arrested and is now registered as a guest at the Grey Bar Hotel…maybe she wanted to be closer to her son.)

As a native West Virginian, I was anxious to seek out and watch The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia even though I had a little trepidation about observing the film’s subjects through the prism of executive producer Johnny Knoxville, the man responsible for bringing the TV series Jackass to the small screen. I’ve dealt with the good-natured ribbing (and some not good-natured) of being from West Virginia all my life; there’s not a WV. joke I haven’t heard at one time or another, and I’d like to say I’m a good enough sport to be able to laugh at most of them. But my experience of watching Wild and Wonderful Whites was an uncomfortable one. Despite an interviewee’s assurances that the family “doesn’t represent anything in West Virginia,” watching these people “fuss, fight and party” is a visual wet dream for anyone who’s spent an inordinate amount of time decrying public assistance and “welfare queens” Simply put, the movie presents my home state and inhabitants in an embarrassing and all-too-stereotypical light. The film glorifies a family that’s really not worth deification, despite Hank Williams III’s declaration that “even though they might be the most hated family, they’re probably the most free…they are the true rebels of the South.” (Well, if these are the sort of role models young Master Williams admires, so be it. I'm content to just pass the time enjoying the West Virginia scenery instead.)

At one point during Wild and Wonderful Whites, an attorney talks about a high school graduate who overcame the numerous obstacles of living in Boone County and went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Why isn't somebody following him around with a camera?” he pointedly asks the filmmakers. The question goes unanswered, though I wish it hadn’t.

The most disappointing facet of this documentary is that there’s a serious film that could have been made here — and there are occasional glimpses of such a movie, as many of those people who agreed to be on camera theorize just what makes the White family…well, the White family. “West Virginia has been owned for almost all of its existence by wealthy interests outside the state,” explains a defense attorney who practices in the Whites’ neck of the woods. “It's like, uh, some African nations that the European nations go and exploit...uh...the natural resources, take all the wealth and then leave.” Other individuals explain how coal mining — described by a White family member as “the best job in West Virginia right now” but blithely ignoring that it’s also often the only job in West Virginia right now — instills a sense of fatalism in many a Mountain State resident because of the all-too-common occurrence that a miner can enter a mine with his best friend…but one of them may not make it out alive.

The Whites unfortunately do not fall under this classification. Father D. Ray, who was forced to retire from coal mining when he became too sick to work, decided to turn the tables on a system that was primarily screwing him by becoming a master on how to beat it — he was able, for example, to get all his kids what we call in West Virginia “crazy checks” from the government by having them classified as mentally incompetent. (Of course, a guy such as Jesco, who spent most of his life inhaling gasoline and lighter fluid, probably wouldn’t have had to work too hard to pass that exam.) Sure, there’s a Stan Jablonski-like spirit of “doing it to them before they do it to us” — but that’s the major gripe so many people have with the culture of entitlement, and it provides fodder for those who’d seek to “destroy the village in order to save it.”

Instead of thoughtfully exploring how Appalachian families are beaten down by poverty and the inequities inherent in the system, Wild and Wonderful Whites courts a freak show atmosphere — an invite to curious onlookers to step right up and see the two-headed cow. (Upon the completion of the film’s credits I half-expected somebody to take center stage and announce: “Ladies and gentlemen…the Aristocrats!”) Someday an individual will attempt (and succeed with) a documentary that illuminates the despairing, hardscrabble life of many of the Mountain State’s residents without making their existence look like an audition for Jerry Springer or a season’s worth of Cops episodes. It’s the idealist in me.

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I had wondered about this documentary, and your comments cemented my decision not to watch it. It's not because it looks like a bad documentary but -- and this is something I rarely mention -- I'm directly descended from the infamous McCoys, and I get a bit touchy about exploiting Appalachian culture and society. Not that the Whites are prime exemplars of true Appalachia, mind, but so much of the U.S. thinks Appalachian culture IS the Whites. Sounds like Johnny Knoxville (pfft) plays on that, which kills any interest I had in this docu.
Growing up in Kanawha County, I heard my fair share about the Whites without ever crossing paths with one, but I had yet to watch this documentary until last night. I fully expected it to be exploitative and disrespectful, especially considering the title. I came away with a very different impression than you did though. I thought the filmmaker did a good job of showing the cycle of poverty, addiction, and violence that can be nearly impossible to escape when it's all you know. The Kirk storyline was especially powerful in that respect. They also did a good job of showing the emotional and loving characteristics that really bond the family despite all of their problems. The story rang true for me as I've seen many of my childhood friends stuck in this same cycle. I think of it less as a commentary on and/or representation of the people of WV, and more of a presentation on extreme poverty and isolation. While the intro scenes seem to exploit, I think they were also necessary to introduce the characters. It's dark and depressing, especially to someone from the area, but i'd recommend it to others as a deep look into many social issues affecting the poor and outcast.
I also found a review and interview with the director on Altdaily that sums up my thoughts a little better than I could
I'm from Tyler County, West Virginia. As you know, that's far north of the deep coal country of Boone County, but we had families living in the hollers that might compare to the Whites.

I disagree with your perspective of the film. There have already been documentaries made about the hard-scrabble existence of dirt-poor West Virginia communities, hand-wringing testimonials to the economic inequities that contribute to that life. This film wasn't meant to be a depiction and characterization of one state. This was a portrait of a screwed up, violent, yet charming and interesting family, and the legacies they've inherited and will pass down to their children.

I expected to turn the movie off before the halfway point, out of embarrassment or a sense of exploitation. I watched the whole thing, mesmerized and fascinated, as so many people I know from West Virginia, though far away from the desperation of the Whites, proudly cling to that fuck-and-fight rebel spirit. You may not be proud of it, but it is an accurate and not condescending in any way document.
My paternal grandmother was a White. Her branch moved out of Boone County in the late 1800's so when I saw this film on Netflix, I decided to watch it. I was mortified, disgusted, confused - but mostly disgusted by all of them. The scenes that involved one of them losing her baby to CPS & being confused and outraged by it?? Really?? The scene at the grandmother's birthday party where folks are doing drugs & one man pulls down his pants while that old woman sits embarrassed?? What about the small beautiful child who hollers "fuck you" into a piece of playground equipment? I came away with the feeling that these people aren't really human - they're stray dogs. I don't get their "logic" or mentality and the fact that this is the legacy that they are (apparently) proudly passing onto the next generation is bewildering. You'd think they'd want more (and better) for their children. Kudo's to Poney for moving as far away as he could - his children have a shot. But that's just me.
@ Sue Harviel. I agree with you completely, except for one point. Stray dogs are much, much better than those pepper. They were brutal Neanderthals!!
There's people like that all over , W.V doesn't have a monopoly on them , and no doubt they are rough , but they are crafty , smart enough to recognize that , " hey this might be our last 15 minutes of fame " , and so let's give them what want . Which is to ham it up , maybe a little more over the top than the usual. There's a whole lot more to things than meets the eye .
Yeah they're crazy , crazy like a fox
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