All cameras aimed at a grinning Johnny Knoxville—flanked by a bluegrass band—outside the theater where "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" made its Los Angeles debut. The "Jackass" star served as the film's executive producer, which might lead one to assume it's the same sort of death-cheating, stunt comedy stuff for which Knoxville is known.
There is plenty of death-cheating in "Whites," but it's no comedy.
The documentary, directed by Julien Nitzberg, follows the legacy of the White family of Boone County, West Virginia. Their most famous living member is Jesco White, star of the 1991 cult documentary hit "Dancing Outlaw" (on which Nitzberg was associate producer).
The Appalachian clan is notorious for criminal activity and reckless, larger-than-life characters. They tap-dance, shoot and stab people (including each other), and sell (and do) a lot of drugs. Think "Sopranos" meets "Coal Miner's Daughter."
Family patriarch D. Ray White, murdered in 1985, is a dancing legend and folk hero in these parts. He was profiled in the PBS documentary "Talking Feet," and was a master at inventing clever scams to counter "company town" corruption and poverty: he is said to have had his entire family declared mentally ill, to collect government aid funds.
Hank Williams III appears in "Whites" to back Jesco up on musical numbers, and celebrates the clan as "true rebels of the South." Director Nitzberg describes the film as "a portrait of American 'badassdom' at its best."
As the film unfolds, we meet more upstanding Boone County residents: attorneys, churchgoing folks with jobs. Through both what they do and do not say, we learn how the Whites have terrorized the town they dominate for decades.
Asked to comment on the reputation of the White family early in the film, Boone County evangelist Patricia Smith pauses, then says—"I'd really rather not comment on that." Who can blame her? These are deadly rednecks.
Jesco attended the film's Los Angeles premiere with his brawny sister Mamie, who boasts in the film of having stuffed enemies' bodies into abandoned mine shafts. After the screening and a little audience encouragement, Jesco agreed to tap-dance on stage while the bluegrass band plucked. He's a dark, charismatic figure on-screen and in person: covered in prison tattoos, he's part Elvis, part Johnny Cash, part Charles Manson, all enigma and black charm. He's the guy mothers beg their daughters to stay away from. He's the guy those daughters flock to, anyway.
The film careens from trainwreck to tragedy: an 85th birthday celebration for Jesco and Mamie's mother turns into a crazed coke rampage, while the elderly lady cowers and weeps. A young clan member speaks to us from prison, jailed for having shot his uncle multiple times in the face and sparking an armed police standoff—he presumes he's charmed the judge into granting an early release, but we soon learn he's wrong.
And in what is widely referred to as the film's most ethically troubling scene, Kirk, who stabbed her husband not long ago, has just given birth to a baby girl. She muses about the better life she hopes her daughter might lead. And moments later, mom's snorting powdered lines of contraband prescription narcotics on a hospital room nightstand, while the infant sleeps a few feet away.
Critics have asked Nitzberg how he could stand by and shoot in good conscience, while a child is so clearly endangered by the criminal acts of the adults responsible for her care. Those acts would happen anyway, the logic goes—it's just that Nitzberg's cameras happened to be on hand to document.
Those cameras continue to follow Kirk she loses custody of her newborn to the state. Then she's off to rehab, then we see her reunited with her children, but we wonder for how long?
A personal detour here: I was conceived in West Virginia, not far from the Whites' stomping grounds. To their credit, my parents got out as fast as possible. I thank them for it.
Most of the people I know from West Virginia talk about the state the way soldiers talk about Iraq: it's a place to get out of. The only people born there who stay there, the saying goes, are the ones too poor to escape. There are two archetypal forms of livelihood: coal miner, and an approximation of what the Whites are. Scary hillbillies.
I've spent much time there. I still know and love the meandering Appalachian trails. I have dined on hot, Velveeta-covered slices of Possum Holler Pizza, and remember the taste of sassafras root tea from childhood. I know the place and its people well enough to say that Nitzberg nailed it as few filmmakers do. "Whites" is an unlikely masterpiece. It entertains, morbidly, but the film is a bleak landscape. Trashed earth, trashed people, seemingly inescapable destiny.
West Virginia has something in common with oil-rich nations in West Africa: corporations based elsewhere profit from its mineral riches; most of the wealth ends up exported while the land goes to waste and the locals live in poverty.
The Whites are the product of an environment in which mountains are literally sawed off, sliced open like great stuffed cakes, to extract the coal they contain. These Appalachian hills haven't been so much mined as mowed.
Who survives this? What will remain when all the mountains are flattened, and all the coal's gone?
Probably, the Whites.
☠ ☠ ☠
THE WILD AND WONDERFUL WHITES OF WEST VIRGINIA
A film by Julien Nitzberg
shot in Boone County, West Virginia
Official Website | Facebook | Trailer | Available via download from Amazon, and as video-on-demand on most American cable television systems.
THEATRICAL RELEASE: Opens June 25th at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles. Denver Film Society, June 8th. At Cinemapolis in Ithaca, NY over the weekend of June 26-27. And in Austin, TX at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz July 13 and 14.
DVD (with extensive bonus features) out in October.
Photos courtesy Julien Nitzberg, and the archives of Mamie and Jesco White and family.