This kind of movie is normally far from my normal range of viewing material. I must confess my only reason for having seen it is due to it being a school assignment, and the only reason I’m writing about it is for the same purpose, so I figured, since this is kind of what I do anyway, that I might as well kill two birds with one stone and make two versions of this review, one for the professor, and one for you guys. This movie was produced by the same guys who brought you Jackass. Yes, that wonderful show where grown men repeatedly hit themselves, and each other in the nuts, and then laugh uproariously to the satisfaction of an alarming legion of teenage fans. If you think that juvenile people such as that mark the bottom of the barrel in American culture, then you my friend, need to look deeper into the barrel. As once you get past the social irresponsibility of the Jackass clan, and go down many, many levels, you will arrive at the level of the family featured in this documentary.
The subject of this movie is the infamous White family of West Virginia. They are a family cut from the same cloth as the Hatfield and the McCoy’s, which they should not take as a compliment, as aside from being technically well made, all I learned from the Kevin Costner mini-series about that rivalry was that it was a long, and ultimately pointless feud between two backwoods families who were unable to settle even the most petty of differences without resorting to murder and criminality. Just add in a few bottles of pills and some pickup trucks adorned with stripper mud flaps, a wife beater or two, and a trailer park and you basically have the modern day White family.
The Whites most prominent claim to fame is their patriarch D. Ray White, a famous rural tap dancer who legend has it, knew 56 secret steps that no one else could duplicate. Before his untimely demise in a gunfight with a local man armed with a 12 gauge shotgun, D. Ray passed this trait on to his son, Jesco. After a few more deaths in the family, all violent or drug related in nature, it was Jesco who took up the mantle of the White family, and basically steered it into the sad course it is in today. This movie follows the story of several members of the White family, accompanied by Roman chorus like insertions of comments of local businessmen, politicians, and musicians such as Hank Williams III, who provides the soundtrack for this series, complete with some inspired tap dancing by good ol’ Jesco hisself..
We follow them through countless personal dramas, with the main narrative time being spent on Jesco White, the figurehead, his sister Mamie White, the self proclaimed biggest and toughest of the bunch, and finally Kirk White, his niece with a severe substance abuse problem who we see fighting for possession of her newborn baby here. Out of all the people featured in this movie, the ones I felt the most sympathy for was all of the young children trapped in this dysfunctional and messed up family. I have mixed feelings about it honestly as I’m generally against government intervention in family affairs, but there was a big part of me that was very relieved when the child protective services took away Kirk Whites’ newborn child. And listening to her young son openly curse and show his middle finger to the camera while threatening to murder Kirk’s ex husband was just disgusting and disheartening to watch. I also felt bad for Bertie Mae White, the widow of D. Ray. We see her as she was sick and dying on her last birthday while her children do drugs and generally behave like jackasses around her even after she is visibly upset by their behavior. She seemed to be at least somewhat ashamed of the legacy her children were leaving behind for her.
For the people I was least sympathetic to in this movie, that’s a long, long list to get into, but I think the first one that comes to mind would be Jesco White. He seems to be the one who gets the most attention out of all the Whites and as such he is kind of the ring leader of the bunch, and the one the rest look to for how to behave and conduct themselves in society. He had already had a movie made about him by PBS called the Dancing Outlaw where he told a story about threatening to murder his then wife because she didn’t fix his eggs the way he liked them. He displays a fatalistic and hopeless attitude throughout the film, talking about how he’s basically already dead and is just going through life with this mindset. Since he is the most famous member of the family many other members of the White family look to him as sort of the patriarch for the rest of them and so his fatalistic attitude and his poor example as a human being have been a strong influence on the rest of them turning into what they are today.
Out of all the assorted social and other overall problems the White family has I think just plain old fashioned ignorance is the most severe one they face. You would think with all of the death and tragedy that has struck this family, often from acts of sheer stupidity that at some point they would learn that the way they are living their life is not really panning out any effective results, but still they persist in making the same mistakes, year after endless year. In one scene before Kirk goes to rehab her family throws her a party in which she is encouraged to get as messed up as she can before “going sober”. Their ignorance also leads them to glorify their violent behavior without equivocation. They’ve all got stories of people they have punched, or stabbed, or in some cases shot, and for the most part they’re all as proud as could be of that fact.
The only strength that I kind of see is that they are fiercely loyal to each other and have each others back regardless of whatever else is going on. However, as mentioned occasionally some members do terrorize and steal from their own family members whenever it suits their needs to do so. The only other admirable ones shown here are the family members who have the strength to pull themselves out of this messed up situation and move to another area where they will have better opportunities to make something of themselves and for their future children.
While I will readily admit that it is a combination of both societal issues and their own personal choices that has left the family in the shape it is in today, I think the balance should weigh far heavier on the side of personal choice here. As one commentator in the film noted, West Virginia has long been owned and controlled by powerful and exploitative outsides forces who took the state for all it was worth and then moved on, using the people as cheap labor, ironically just like what happened in Africa, although in not nearly as massive or brutal level as that. The more remote rural poor people of West Virginia for a long time have felt separated from the rest of society, like an unwanted menace to the rest of the world, and growing up with that kind of feeling can naturally cause a lot of resentment. However people like the Whites are not doomed to live the lives they lead. As another man said, there was a local boy from BooneCounty who recently gained admittance into M.I.T and is on his way to leading a respectable life. However, as that same man sadly pointed out, it’s not the people like that who get movies made about them; instead it is people like the Whites.
All that being said, I have talked a great deal about my opinion of this family, which I must say I found to be particularly unlikable and unsympathetic for the most part. However, the producers of this movie did a fine job of telling their story and allowing them to behave in their own natural way. In a way this was like watching one of those national geographic shows about bizarre tribal people who have somehow managed to slip by the notice of time and greater social evolution. I don’t plan on re-watching this myself, but this movie is a startling and effective reminder to those that may need it, that in present day America, there still exists a sizable chunk of people whose values and customs are not that far removed from the Whites. And that truly is something to be concerned about.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia gets a three out of five: GOOD.