The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

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.

☠ ☠ ☠

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.

INTERVIEW with director Julien Nitzberg, by Richard Metzger: video link.

Photos courtesy Julien Nitzberg, and the archives of Mamie and Jesco White and family.


  1. I’ve been really looking forward to this. It’s a shame I can’t watch it (legally) in the UK, though :(

  2. Very scary indeed. Hellbillies more than any other group scare the shite out of me.

    Meth and inbreeding is a hellava combination!

  3. These kinds of folks aren’t too hard to find, really. A lethal cocktail of drugs, poverty and disenfranchisement. Only difference between these people and your average inner city gangbangers is skin color. The hard truth of it is that the rest of us white people feel that hillbillies and toothless tweakers are safe targets for our mockery. Not that I’m any different. People like this scare the hell out of me. I’ll put this on my Netflix Cue tonight.

  4. Those lovely fellows with the beards and fleece and flannel and dirty hair have done a great job of co-opting hipster style ca. right now in Brooklyn and elsewhere: very fashion forward of them.

    I found the nude male pic especially riveting.

    1. you do know that its the other way around right? hipster and indie style came straight out of the hills.

  5. knoxville is way behind the curve on this one. videos of jesco white were being traded by pre-internet hipsters in the 90’s.

  6. I know many of your Boing Boing readers may think that all of West Virginia is like this and it’s not true. I lived in Huntington WV for five years and many people don’t behave like that. Is there a sub-culture of redneck there? Absolutely. However, saying WV is filled with rednecks like that is like saying that California is filled with granola loving Barbara Streisand-like liberals and that everyone in Texas is batshit insane.

    Also, why is it that people think it’s okay to make fun of Appalachians but not other minorities? Just curious.

    1. “Also, why is it that people think it’s okay to make fun of Appalachians but not other minorities? Just curious.”

      Its OK to make fun of white people these days, especially on the internet. Didn’t you know? White people are the source of all of the bad things in this world, and white people need to feel very guilty about the bad things they’ve done to this world, so its OK to make fun of white people. Especially on the internet.

    2. pnsrc,

      Dn’t fl s bd. t s ls pn ssn n th stt f th hr t BngBng s wll. Rmmbr, Mrk rd bk bt t nc nd nw h’s n xprt.

        1. Mark,

          Wow, I got disemvowled for that? I believe that’s the first time it has happened to me.

          In any case I think it is a bit silly to lump all Mormons together. The fact that you feel (or at least Krakauer felt) you need to use the “nonfundamentalist” specifier is revealing. The truth is, could probably make the same statement about fundamentalist Mormons as well. Any time you have a group of several million people there are going to be all sorts of outliers that can be sensationalized, yet that very fact reveals that there is a lot of diversity within any large group and trying to characterize all of them with a broad brush is often fruitless. Mormons have done some horrible things and some wonderful things, just like any other large group of people.

          As for the disemvoweling (which I honestly assume you had nothing to do with) I was just pointing out that there are groups other than rednecks who regularly get stereotyped and treated dismissively here at BoingBoing. Hardly a controversial statement, wouldn’t you say?

          1. I don’t know what part of you picking a fight with Mark in one of Xeni’s threads about an unrelated topic you’re having a hard time understanding.

    3. Your Appalachian Studies indoctrination is showing.

      First: there is no such thing as an Appalachian. There is a mountain range called the Appalachians that runs from Alabama to Canada, West Virginia and Kentucky do not own the name. That name was invented by middle class state and local bureaucrats and journalists looking to scam the federal government out of highway funds. Nowadays it’s used to create a quasi-minority. I have never heard anyone outside of a college identify themselves as an Appalachian.

      Second: Why are you so insulted by the attention these people are getting? Unless mountain artists are the right kind of folk artists (lefties) they never get any attention from the AS crowd. The Whites are known because of their dancing first, and their antics second. There are millions of people in this country worse than the Whites, but they don’t get attention because they’re not also artists. Where’s your outrage over the exploitation of the Grey Gardens women? Or the Jersey Shore crowd?

      Third: Get over yourself. The AS crowd continually complains about the outside corporate exploitation, but the minute the media turns its attention to the actual victims of this exploitation, they get all upset. In almost 50 years, the AS crowd haven’t helped one person except themselves. They really don’t care about the poor except as a way of enriching themselves, and they are worried about always controlling the message.

    4. I live just outside of Huntington (in Ashland) myself. I’ve pretty much given up dissuading this kind of dis info. “Hillbillies” of this degree are incredibly rare. And as a former Huntington resident you could probably also attest to the fact that hoods coming in from Detroit to sling in “moneyington” were much more of a concern.

  7. Interesting to see Jesco White in the media again. He achieved a sort of fame in Jacob Young’s Dancing Outlaw which ended up getting him a walk on role on Rosanne. (Julian was an associate producer on the original DO).
    As amusing as he can be, he is as representative of the Coal Country he comes from as the typical aforementioned hipster is of their community.

  8. I live and have grown up in West Virginia. The White are an exception to the rule. There is far more to West Virginia than rednecks and coal mining. I’m sick and tired of these stereotypes, which this columnist only promotes.
    Alternatively, look at the great white water in West Virginia, the many vacation spots and resorts, and the glass and china industry. West Virginia has a wonderful history but all anyone ever seems to want to talk about are the rednecks.

    “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.” Really? Wow. How very progressive of you.

    1. I grew up in West Virginia and I definetly have a love/hate relationship with the state. It’s absolutely stunning for its natural beauty, but a trip to the local corner store could be horrifying for anyone who isn’t used to the local flavor.
      I don’t think the film is exploitation because the Whites are obviously an extreme case of “redneck culture”.

  9. Don’t be so judgemental for a group of people that crafted what is clearly the most awesome boing boing papercraft junk cover ever.

  10. Thanks for a fascinating post, Xeni. Will certainly seek this film out — though it looks like rough going.

    The subject-matter puts me in mind of a coastal town in Maine, not far from where my family spends the summer. The town has a thriving lobster fishing industry, a beautiful harbor — and one or two marauding, drug-dealing families who are little whirligigs of criminal activity. Coastal Maine is like that — three cultures superimposed on one another: the affluent retirees “from away,” the solid, historically working-class families in fishing or logging, and the marginal, scrappy families inhabiting the frayed edges of the social fabric — particularly the part of the fabric where legitimate enterprises intersect with the drug trade. (I keep having visions of an old tourist-travel film for the town: “Welcome to our lovely harbor town!” — cut to shot of lobster-boat exploding.)

  11. Is that last image a scan of someone’s suicide note? :-(

    Also, I’m not from WV and don’t have family there, but I know that there’s more to the state than hillbillies and coal mining.

  12. The history of West Virginia is really sad. The state was founded specifically as an anti-slavery, pro-Union alternative to Virginia at the start of the civil war. And yet, the state has fallen so far from those lofty beginnings.

    I’m genuinely puzzled by why so many West Virginians see the confederacy as a positive thing when their state was a bastion of the Union.

    1. I’m genuinely puzzled by why so many West Virginians see the confederacy as a positive thing when their state was a bastion of the Union.

      I recommend the book “Confederates in the Attic” to you, although it does not really answer your question.

      1. I’d recommend “Deer Hunting with Jesus” by Joe Bageant. He’s from Virgina (not far from the WV border) but he does a great job explaining the cultural and social pressures that shape the people from this region (including some parts of the “southern heritage” question and the business benefits of institutionalized racism.)

        1. Thank you, Anon. I have “Deer Hunting for Jesus” on the list!

          Sapere_Aude, I have enjoyed your informative posts and agree with you about the many meanings of the confederate flag. In passing, though, I must note: I teach my children to assume that persons waving the Confederate flag are Kluxers, until proven otherwise. It is safer for a child of color to be wary, although I thoroughly understand what you’ve said and I agree with you.

      2. Some time back, I noticed the flag in several spots in Ireland, on peoples clothes, hanging from a window in a bar and more. Asking a horsemen near Dingletown who had little confederate flags on his hatband, he said it was a symbol of rebellion to him. The flag in WVa has more to do with the Dukes of Hazzard than the civil war.

    2. The history of West Virginia is hardly sad. Perhaps you’re confused by the fact that many counties in West Virginia continued to align themselves with the Confederacy and the Commonwealth of Virginia, despite the state’s secession.
      West Virginia is a unique state that has fortunately avoided many of the South’s terrible problems with civil rights. I would suggest that instead of “sad,” the history of the state is instead very, very interesting and extraordinary.

    3. I am a proud citizen of the lost state of Nickajack: a pro-Union part of the South that tried unsuccessfully to secede from the Confederacy during the Civil War. Many of the citizens of the Nickajack region (northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee) sided with, and even fought for, the North during the war. Northern Alabama even raised a volunteer cavalry regiment for the United States Army (the 1st Alabama Cavalry USV), which fought valiantly for the Union in many battles throughout the South, and even accompanied Sherman’s army on its notorious march to the sea. Notably, the 1st Alabama included both white and black soldiers. Though the soldiers of the 1st Alabama, along with their families and other civilians who supported them, regarded themselves as loyal Americans, many of their former friends and neighbors regarded them as traitors to the Confederacy. They were subjected to brutal treatment by Confederate soldiers and pro-Confederacy partisans and terrorist groups (such as the Ku Klux Klan), both during the war and during the Reconstruction era that followed.

      My great-grandfather was born just as the Civil War was beginning; and he was named after Abraham Lincoln. His oldest brother was a sergeant in the 1st Alabama Cavalry USV. So, my family, along with most of their friends and neighbors, and fellow citizens of the Nickajack region, sided with the North during the war (and many paid a heavy price for their loyalty to the Union, both during and after the war). You’d think that all of this would be celebrated in story and song. But it isn’t. I never heard any of this when I was growing up. It certainly wasn’t taught in school as part of our history curriculum. I grew up assuming that my family, and every other Southerner, sided with the Confederacy during the war. I never learned about Southern Unionists or the 1st Alabama Cavalry USV until a few years ago when I began to research my family tree. I’d be willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of residents of northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee today have never heard of the lost state of Nickajack, and aren’t even aware of the fact that many of their ancestors likely supported, and may have even fought for, the North during the Civil War.

      The Confederacy may have lost the war on the battlefield; but, after the war was over, Confederate supporters (with the help of their terrorist arm: the KKK) decisively won the battle for the “hearts and minds” of white Southerners. Today, I’d say that pro-Confederacy sentiment is just as strong in the Nickajack region as it is anywhere else in the South, if not stronger. Pro-Confederacy propaganda has essentially erased all traces of Nickajack or Southern Unionism from the popular understanding of Southern history. It’s one of the sad ironies of history that many descendants of loyal Southern Unionists today are unwittingly dishonoring the memory of their own ancestors by waving the Confederate flag in a misguided attempt to celebrate their “Southern heritage”.

      The only real difference between West Virginia and Nickajack is that the Unionists of the northwestern portion of Virginia were successful in their bid to secede from the Confederacy, whereas the Unionists of northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee were not. The divided loyalties leading to bitter internecine conflict and brutal acts of reprisal and terrorism were the same in both places. And it’s likely that the worldview of many West Virginians has been influenced by post-war pro-Confederate propaganda in much the same way that worldview of many northern Alabamians and eastern Tennesseans has been (though perhaps to a lesser degree). So, the situation in West Virginia, where many today wave Confederate flags in spite of the fact that their ancestors wore Union blue, is far from unique.

      Also keep in mind that the Confederate flag today has become more than just a symbol of Dixie pride. For many it’s a symbol of racism and white supremacism (whether they’ll admit it or not). For many it’s a symbol of opposition to the federal government. For many it’s a symbol of rebelliousness in general. For many it’s a symbol of anti-progressivism — a desire to return to a mythical “golden age” that resembles the Old South as portrayed in Gone with the Wind (an Eden that never really existed outside of Margaret Mitchell’s imagination). You don’t have to be a son or daughter of the Old Confederacy to embrace any or all of these viewpoints, and to hoist a Rebel flag as a symbol of your beliefs. So I’m not at all surprised to see Confederate symbolism used by folks outside of the 11 states of Dixie proper.

  13. Also, why is it that people think it’s okay to make fun of Appalachians but not other minorities? Just curious.


    “Appalachians” are considered a minority?

    1. Yes. Appalachians are a minority group. We are even eligible for minority scholarships. Unfortunately most of us don’t find this out until it is too late (i.e., I didn’t qualify because I was already enrolled in college by the time I found out they were available, and I hadn’t taken the necessary “minority acculturation” classes, while others I know who might have taken advantage of the opportunity had never heard of it and ended up taking jobs on the railroad, in the mines, or in coal coking facilities, etc.)

    2. i don’t think they are being “made fun of” at all. the film treated the White’s with the dignity and respect that they deserve. it merely shows, with honesty, their lives with all the joys and disappointments contained within.

  14. He’s the guy mothers beg their daughters to stay away from. He’s the guy those daughters flock to, anyway.

    Somebody had to take the job when I got hitched!

    I’ve enjoyed nearly every minute I’ve spent in West Virginia; I lived there for a while. I admit that it is a bad place for rude, inconsiderate cityfolk to visit; but in my experience polite and mannerly people are treated extremely well by the natives. Those parts of the state that have not been destroyed (to feed the rest of America’s insatiable appetite for dirty energy) are very beautiful.

  15. Wild, yes. Wonderful? Now there’s a definition of that word I haven’t really seen before. Maybe it’s used in the ironic sense.

  16. #9 Dear Opensource,
    I’m from Wacko, TX – and yes, everyone there is batshit insane if they stay.

    And yes, most of my relatives resemble those photos.
    I am so thankful for science fiction showing me that education would get me out of that hell.

    1. Haha, me too. Waco is the worst. Between bible beating Baylor types and a giant ghetto, there’s really not much room for variety. Two sides of the same shitty coin.

  17. Agree with #4 and #14. I moved to West Virginia from Jersey City, NJ in the early 90s. The poverty culture was/is the same in both places.

  18. lv hw “prgrssv” blg lk Bng Bng clms t b thnks t’s fn t prptt th strtyps f Wst Vrgnns. ‘v lvd n ths stt my whl lf nd th mjrty f ppl r nt lk ths.

    Y cn fnd ppl wth ths typs f prblms/tttds nywhr, bt y chs t gnrlz nd sy th whl stt s lk ths. f y ctlly spnt tm hr th wy y sy y hv y wld s tht ths s nt th nrm.

    nthr ncrsngly bsd rtcl frm Xn. ( nd t chck nt th Grsmnky scrpt tht blcks hr psts)

    1. Boingboing is not enforcing a stereotype, it was previewing a movie that shows a sub-couture as they have done many times before.

      Grow up troll elsewhere.

    2. Nothing about Xeni’s post suggests mockery or belittlement, any more than a mention of City of God “makes fun of” Brazilians. Rural Appalachians are a distinct group of people with a unique heritage. They are often seen as mystifying, sometimes intimidating to outsiders, and like many groups of people, they have their own set of dysfunctions and human-ness. Documenting and sharing that history is not a de facto expression of smug superiority on behalf of a prejudiced elite. I haven’t seen this documentary, so I will not judge it, but nothing Xeni has written is disrespectful.

      If you don’t like BB’s posts, I suggest you troll elsewhere.

      Someone who has spent most of their life living in Appalachia

      1. I believe the issue starts when Xeni says:

        “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.”

        I don’t think people sensitive to the stereotypes and belittling WV endures see that as a gracious or benign.

        It reads like a subtle insult, whether that was her intent or not.

        The slighting of Appalachians dates back hundreds of years. People who take pride in our State, and who want to right the wrongs of absentee mineral barons and chemical industries have a hard enough time battling the old guard who run our State without fighting the hillbilly stigma from abroad.

        Comments like Xeni’s, however innocent she may have intended them, serve to reinforce the stereotypes and ideas that WV is merely a hotbed of white trash and ignorance; it’s not someplace to be avoided and to pray you never live in.

  19. Note the not-from-Hot Topic Misfits t-shirt in the 8th pic down after the jump (is that Hank III?). The story of rural, backwoods pre-interwebs punk (what I list for ethnicity on the Census, etc.) is one that deserves told.

  20. “Also, why is it that people think it’s okay to make fun of Appalachians but not other minorities?”

    Neither Xeni nor, by her own account, the film are “making fun” of them. *You’re* saying that.

    “I’m sick and tired of these stereotypes, which this columnist only promotes.”

    Neither Xeni nor the film are promoting stereotypes; both are obviously and sensitively aware of the impoverished conditions that create families like that pictured in the film.

    “Its OK to make fun of white people these days, especially on the internet. Didn’t you know? White people are the source of all of the bad things in this world, and white people need to feel very guilty about the bad things they’ve done to this world, so its OK to make fun of white people. Especially on the internet.”

    White Whining, Exhibit A.

    “You can find people with these types of problems/attitudes anywhere, but you choose to generalize and say the whole state is like this.”

    You yourself are generalizing — about the article and, from what I can discern from the article, the film.

    Even though they may be interwoven with other social and cultural factors, it’s also obviously, demonstrably true that the poverty and social disintegration in WV are there. So to all the above posters, I ask: What do you think would help alleviate this? Seriously. What do you think would help turn this around, in WV’s particular case?

    1. The article DOES state that there are two archetypal professions, coal miner and “scary hillbilly” (by which they presumably mean the moonshine running-turned-pot growing-turned-meth manufacturing families).

      That’s a pretty sweeping generalization.

      Although I can’t argue with the statement that, for the most part, the only folks who don’t leave are those too poor too. (Something I’ve had a hard time making folks outside Appalachia understand about the culture of poverty there. Some folks truly have no other options and truly are ‘stuck’ in a place with few jobs and opportunities, even if they wanted to get away, go to college, and do something else.) I miss Appalachia, and I’ll go back just as soon as I’m able to work remotely from a mountaintop or hilltop somewhere (preferably back home in eastern Kentucky). But right now the infrastructure just isn’t there all across the region, and the opportunities that will be there are still limited to those of us lucky enough to get out and make some contacts that might allow us to bring contract work home, someday…

      1. Anon, What part of “archetypal” don’t you understand? I’m pointing out the stereotypes/archetypes of life in West Virginia, not saying that these are, in fact, the two only professions available.

        1. I’m honestly not niggling semantically, Xeni, but archetypal does not (at first blush, to me) mean stereotypical- at least in the context of your article.

          If you’d said stereotypical, I think there would be less offense taken by us upstanding mountain folk =)

          Thanks, btw. I *really* wanted an excuse to one day use the phrase ‘niggling semantically’ =P

          Though, the accuracy of niggling, as a verb in this context, can be called in to question…


  21. I feel like those outraged about a filmmaker making fun of whites or Appalachians are mainly defending their right to not have issues about people caught in the poverty trap thrust in their face. I’m guessing you mistake dying forgotten in a hell hole for dignity. And of course there’s rich people in WV; *someone* has to be exploiting the Appalachians.

    The comparison to the west African nations is striking; I am wondering if there is a local varient of Dutch disease working here, and it turns out a common currency can’t actually stop it.

    1. I dont think that is the issue with those people. The reality is that it is pretty safe to make fun of white stereo types no matter who you are. While this film and boingboing arent partaking in any of that, films and discussions like this always bring these issues to mind.

      I see no sacred cows, and if I ever find one I will grind it up for hamburger. No one is above being made fun of… but the rest of society isnt like that. Everyone needs protected, except white people.

    2. These “someones” are largely families from well outside the region who came in and said “sure, you still own the land, but the government granted us the mineral rights underneath it and imminent domain allows us to force you off the land and extract this wealth. The (polluted) dirt though is still yours, once we’re all done.”

      Then they ended up selling those rights to various companies, most of which are operated outside WV.

      Massey Coal is operated out of Richmond, Virginia.

      Arch Coal is operated out of St. Louis, Missouri, and was founded by a Texas family.

      CONSOL Energy is out of Pennsylvania.

      Peabody Coal is also out of St. Louis…

      You get the picture…

  22. I don’t get all the complaining about this. This isn’t making fun of whites, minorities or West Virginians. It’s about a family who are a famous EXCEPTION to the rules. That’s why they made it. Why would anyone make a documentary about a normal family living a normal life?

  23. When I was three years old my parent’s moved us to West Virginia.

    . . .

    When I was three years old my parent’s moved us away from West Virginia.

    That is all.

  24. I added this to my netflix que the first time boingboing mentioned this a while back. I think it has recently become available.

    Is this film racist/classist/bigoted? Maybe. Who cares. The reality is that everyone is a bigot. Its just to what degree, and to what degree we allow it to influence our actions when we interact with others. We cant ignore what visual prejudgments tell us. Its fine to walk across the street to avoid someone if your spider sense tells you you are in danger. It’s quite another to punch someone in the face.

    Hillbillies are a certain kinda scary that is different than poor black trash scary, but with amusing over lapping. The drugs, guns, and lexicon are different shades of the same stupid. They hate the other side, and blame them for all the woes in the world; but have only really ever talked to hand full of them and end up liking them just fine.

    Both of these groups have a good chance to survive a zombie Apocalypse since they are armed to the teeth.

    When I think Appalachians I think guys named zeek, cannibals, bango music, jesus, incest, black people/long hairs/queers being hung by the cement pond while elly mae’s critters knaw at their toes… I’ve stopped into few redneck towns… some of the people dont make you feel welcome or safe. Best to avoid the small talk, stick to main roads, and keep a low profile save you end up in some nightmare and the fbi never finds your body.

  25. Quite often we West Virginians act like total redneck hillbillies to scare off people from out of state that we don’t like. We perpetuate the myths and legends of various hillbillies, hell-raisers, and Hatfields/ McCoys to keep big city folk away from our state.

    1. Right. Because otherwise they’d just be invading to get close to that killer pollution and the coal-company-corruption of state government.

  26. Hey, the Boing slaps Delaware from time to time too. Shall we start a therapy group?

    Hi, I’m from Delaware/Utah/WestVirginia and I’m being oppressed by the wicked media overlords! Come and see the violence inherent in the system!

  27. Well my wife and I took a road trip up to the northern tip of WV, and stopped in Newell, WV. Home of Homer Laughlin china, best known for making Fiestaware.

    My parents were both raised on farms in rural Yadkin, NC. So I’m used to seeing what a lower income farming community can look like. But not much could prepare me for what I saw and didn’t see.

    (I’m not saying all of WV is like this, but the northern Ohio River valley area seemed pretty much like this all over.)

    The roads…I’d HIGHLY recommend a 4×4 truck. Potholes are everywhere, and it doesn’t look like it has been paved in 20+ years. Stores…outside of the 1 McDonalds we saw there were no other chain type of stores. The only grocery we saw was the local mom+pop place (which there isn’t anything wrong with, but there are a right many people living right there as well.) We didn’t really see any new housing. Maybe a few, but most were 40-50 years old or more. (Most were being taken care of, and I don’t see wrong in preserving something like that. And some where falling apart, literally.)

    Now we stayed in a few other places much larger than Newell in WV and they were quite nice.

    WV is a nice place to visit, perhaps even retire to if you want a slower more relaxed pace of life. But there are some areas that you’d be hard pressed to make a better life for yourself. (Even the workers at the Fiestaware factory told us that most of the younger folks leave just because there are no jobs. And most of the workers had been there 15+ years.)

    1. The Northern Panhandle is one of the 5 or so unique regions of our state, and completely overlooked by commerce in the more prosperous states its wedged between.

      The geography of the N. Panhandle, and the overall stigma and economic ruin of WV, guarantees businesses move across borders to Ohio and Pennsylvania.

  28. I can’t speak for the rest of the state, but the four miles that the Appalachian Trail crosses through West Virginia was the only time on my entire thru-hike that I was shot at.

    I ran like hell, which is fun with a backpack on BTW, only to find a half a mile down the trail a gentleman in flannel and treebark camouflage sitting on a case of Genesee that when asked if he heard the gunshot swore that he didn’t hear nothin’.

    I put that state far behind me real quick.

  29. I hope this film was made for reasons other than the entertainment of urbanites. Unfortunately, I doubt this is the case. Poverty is no excuse for people to behave like this. The real tragedy is the number of children who grow up in homes like this.

  30. Some documentaries “make fun” of subcultures, but it’s not an *always* situation.

    If a viewer perceives the doc as lampooning, that’s possibly the viewer’s issue to sort through and doesn’t necessarily mean everyone sees it that way.

    While Xeni might have been generalizing about WV, I understand where she might be coming from. I grew up in rural Georgia, and even though I have lived in metro Atlanta for 20 years, I still think of non-metro as being mostly backwoods rednecks. (In some areas, that’s a fair generalization.)

    Not related to the documentary in question: Open season for attacking white folks on the internet? If that’s true, all I can say is boo hoo, poor rich, straight, white, old men are being challenged for centuries-long positions of power and corruption. I weep.

    1. The problem is it isn’t the “poor old rich white men” getting made fun of. It’s the extremely impoverished, under-educated white man; the same ones who are exploited by the rich white men who also exploit the blacks/latinos and pit the various groups against one another to drive down wages.

      When we make fun of the poor whites too, we are playing into the hand of these “rich whites” who want to play up those feelings of “otherness” between these various groups so that they don’t realize how much they have in common and the mutual benefits they could enjoy by standing together in a Union.

      These “rich whites” they just laugh all the way to the bank.

      1. “When we make fun of the poor whites too, we are playing into the hand of these ‘rich whites'”

        As Mr. Dylan said:

        He’s taught in his school
        From the start by the rule
        That the laws are with him
        To protect his white skin
        To keep up his hate
        So he never thinks straight
        ‘Bout the shape that he’s in
        But it ain’t him to blame
        He’s only a pawn in their game.

  31. Yawn.

    America needs to get over its obsession with people who lead different kinds of lives than they do. There is no “right” way to live your life. Pointing a camera at rednecks in West Virginia is the same as pointing one at the freaks in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, if you ask me.

  32. The roads…I’d HIGHLY recommend a 4×4 truck. Potholes are everywhere, and it doesn’t look like it has been paved in 20+ years.

    Shoot, friend, most our roads in Michigan are like that and that’s in the city.

    1. I knew NC’s roads were good, and we pay enough taxes they should be, but damn. I see why they say replace your struts/shocks every 50k miles.

  33. As a long-term resident of WV, I can tell you the State is very diverse. I live in the Eastern Panhandle in a small, liberal college town and it’s more like a European village than any other place I’ve been in the US (I’ve lived in Europe as well). When I go mountain biking down in the central/southern part of the state, I see a *lot* of rednecks – it reminds me of rural Wisconsin where I grew up actually, just hillier. Same ratio of bars/cars (very high) and the same racist, xenophobic, ignorant attitudes. So whether you are 45 miles from Madison, WI or deep in the hollers you find rednecks. Oh yeah – I’ve also found them in great plenty in Boston, only there they have NE accents and tend towards craprock instead of bluegrass. Basically, it’s pretty much the same all over IMO unless you are in a city.

  34. Not related to the documentary in question: Open season for attacking white folks on the internet? If that’s true, all I can say is boo hoo, poor rich, straight, white, old men are being challenged for centuries-long positions of power and corruption. I weep.

    Stereotypes. I really have no problem with white people being made fun of (I do it regularly). As someone said above, there are no sacred cows and if one were found I would assist with throwing it into the grinder. I’m just making an observation about our idealized culture of supposed racial equality, and you’ve reinforced my point again: all white people are evil and should feel guilty for their existence, so it’s OK to make fun of them!

  35. “America needs to get over its obsession with people who lead different kinds of lives than they do.”

    Yes. It will make it a helluva lot easier to bomb them or ignore them as their city disappears under floodwaters.

  36. there may or may not be more of this sort of ‘folk’ in West Virginia than there are in other states – but it also describes accurately what might almost be a majority culture in parts of Oregon as well – and where I grew up on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Does this characterize Oregon (or Washington)? No. If you read through the gloss of ‘sometimes a great notion’, though, you’re apt to realize that Kesey is describing the very same culture.

  37. Damn, not sure where to start. Maybe here:

    Xeni, I didn’t know you were a Charmco/Rainelle/Rupert girl. Possum Holler back, yo!

    The fact that this movie got made wouldn’t upset me so much if there weren’t some truth to it. I’ve lived in WV for 15 years and I’m moving in a month. There are other reasons for the move, but hellbillies and mountaintop removal mining are part of the equation.

    It’s a true love/hate relationship. There are parts of the state’s culture and geography that are uniquely beautiful. The whitewater, the rock climbing, the artisans, the homemade whiskey, the music (oh my god, the music!), and some of the best people anywhere in the world.

    But it’s a state that’s totally okay with this. And this. And this. I could go on and on. Think of the robber barons of the industrial revolution; those people have had their businesses holed up in the WV hills since then, printing money out of coal.

    I liked the outlaw of the place when I was younger (a friend once got out of a DUI by telling the state trooper that he had to drive b/c he was too drunk to walk. Points for originality, I guess). But now that I’m raising a family, I want different things out of life.

    Full disclosure: I’ve changed my mind about this movie. I was pissed off when I first head about it, especially at the filmmaker and producers. Now, I just feel sad.

    1. “It’s a true love/hate relationship…I liked the outlaw of the place when I was younger….”

      Grew up in rural mississippi, and i feel ya all the way. I moved. Get nostalgic, but I gotta remind myself.

      True that there’s discrepancies in who it’s ok to make fun of (note that there is only one racial slur on the bb no-no list), but that’s a straw-man. It’s not slander if it’s true, and this doesn’t look to overgeneralize to me.

      It doesn’t go out of it’s way to say, with apologetic tone, “…but it’s not all of them of course…” but it shouldn’t have to. I hate doing that.

  38. Xeni,

    I was born and have lived in West Virgina all my life I think it is inaccurate to say the White’s represent all of the people who live in West Virginia. While I’m happy to learn you were born here, I’m sorry to hear you say that those of us who are happy to stay in this beautiful state are poor hillbillies who can’t afford to get out.

    In fact many of us are NPR listeners and BoingBoing readers.

  39. I have a feeling that watching this would be a chore, because all the factors that go into creating this kind of dysfunction are fucking depressing as hell.
    I also don’t know how I feel about Johnny Knoxville and Hank 3 using these people as a means with which to make a living.
    Sure, where to draw the line between dysfunction and “another lifestyle”. Maybe snorting drugs after giving birth? Having your entire clan declared insane?
    The crushing poverty visited upon parts of this country (and other places) for the exploitation of labor and natural resources is just fucked up..

  40. Can someone on the BoingBoing side enlarge the images a bit? I can hardly tell what is in them.

    As for the exploitation angle, I have to wonder how many of the neggers of this flick have “American Movie” on their Desert Island list.

  41. I’ll add this to my Netflix but reading the article on this movie terrifies me on several levels.

  42. The White family does seem like a pretty rough bunch but not terribly unusual. I guess it depends on what you are used to.

  43. These folks were my mother’s neighbors when she was a little girl. It was expected she was going to marry into the White clan when she was of age, but my grandpa moved them to Kentucky. My mother was far different than the average Appalachian as she completed the third grade.

    1. @jeligula, fascinating.

      @others concerned that the film, or this blog post, are making fun of a stereotype:

      West Virginia is a beautiful and exploited state.

      There are many normal, poor and middle-class, upstanding folks in West Virginia. This film is not about them.

      This particular film is about a particular set of characters who are fucked up and fascinating. It’s not a neutral documentary about West Virginia as a whole. It’s a character study about one very specific set of people, one particular slice of Appalachian life. There isn’t a happy ending.

  44. RE: The Civil War and commenters Ito and JoshuaZ,
    it was a conflict of the Industrial vs the Agrarian, and when Virginia split, it split almost precisely into what could be farmed and what could be mined. The mining half was Union. The farming half was Confederate. Interesting stuff.
    Jacob Young’s original documentary “Dancing Outlaw” rambles a little, but is still great. Find it online. Most people watch it and go through phases of laughter, disbelief, then oddly, empathy.
    And yes, it is impossible to fetishize this kind of thing without admitting that we are being totally classist in doing so. If these people were Hispanic or African American, their economic plight would have no audience here.

    1. “If these people were Hispanic or African American, their economic plight would have no audience here.”

      We’re all good fans of The Wire.

  45. Noooooooooooooo!!! They be dissing mah hell-hole!

    Seriously, if you’re that upset about how your state is perceived, why don’t you work on fixing the problems rather than having a hissy when anyone takes pictures of the actual reality of the situation.

    1. Antinous, this isn’t the actual reality, the majority of the state isn’t like this, it’s a very tiny section, there are a few counties where it is bad, and there are parts of counties where it is common, but on the whole, the state is non-representative to these conditions.

      Are there problems, certainly, but at least the problems exist everywhere in the US, it’s just the groups, that surround the problem, that changes. At least this is one of the few states, that knows how to keep and maintain a balanced budget.

  46. also, lots of those pics remind me of staying with family/friends in trailer parks and back-woods homes as a kid. it looks like a familiar culture, and I’ll definitely check the film out.

  47. god, sorry about the multiple posts, but the guy with the lazy eye looks like the coon-ass (louisiana redneck) shrimp fisherman who broke my mom’s legs, and that kid with the puppy could be me.

  48. This relates to the idea of an “exiled” community acting way more extreme/patriotic than the one they think they are paying hommage to. Like how Italian-Americans are probably “more” Italian than their ancestors. Or how on St. Patricks day, people think they are ridiculously Irish, because some great grandparent, somewhere, left Ireland eons ago. Beyond national or ancestoral pride, it even carries over to brand identity. All those southern outlaw bikers and black leather Harley Davidson gear? As recently as 1970, Harley Davidson wanted nothing to do with outlaw biker culture – they wanted to be respectable touring bikes, like BMW. And southerners wanted nothing to do with bikers, as evidenced in Easy Rider when their trip through a khaki-pants, button-down shirt and crew cut wearing south is met with stares and shotguns. Fast forward 40 years and Harley Davidson and the South would have you believe they’ve been sticking it to the man on their steel horses since the days of General Lee. What does my rant have to do with the Whites of WV? These are a people isloated from a larger culture they THINK they know and understand, but have actually perverted it to something more extreme than it ever was by someone in the actual, geographic South.

    1. @rtresco and @napsterista,

      I might be reading your post wrong, but are you calling the Whites wannabes? Just curious. It almost seems like you’re saying they don’t know that they’re pretending to be something.

      If that’s the case, you’ve given their lifestyle a lot more thought than they have, I think.

  49. This does indeed look like just another in a line of exploitation films about Jesco White and his family. Jacob Young has already made fun of these people twice. We don’t need an update.

  50. Part of the solution as some have demanded on this board is not to participate in the exploitation of the region by way of the depiction of the Whites. It’s clear when someone writes that when he thinks of Appalachia he thinks of people named Zeek, Jesus, and incest, he (or she) has been manipulated by those who choose to use those stereotypes for lazy humor, easy entertainment (“brought to you by the people who made Jackass”). Yes, it’s all lazy and easy. Nonetheless, solutions in this forum, with all the power that commentators on this board may muster, lie in choosing to actively choose what you watch about the region. A series like “Country Boys,” for example, depicted accurately poor kids, who reflecting the commonalities of music-lovingness, religion, defiance, and resignation of the region, without demeaning the characters themselves, nor the place from which they come. The solution, for you, reading this, is to wisen up.

  51. So, 2 years ago I married into a widespread Ohioan family. Very nice people, except for one thing that really sets my teeth on edge: contempt for Appalachian people. I had heard of this before, of how in Ohio there is widespread prejudice against the Scotch-Irish rednecks of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, both the ones still there and the ones who moved to Cincinati in search of factory work over the last century.

    At this point, I’m almost ready to buy into the hard-left belief that this prejudice was media-nurtured on purpose to make it easier for the country to tolerate the living and working conditions of the coal miners of that region. Because it’s just too intense to be explaiined otherwise. And no, I have no connection to this otherwise. I’ve never been to Hillbilly country nor met many folks from there.

    1. What is “Scotch-Irish”? Someone in Belfast attempting to make a good single-malt? Or did you actually mean _Scots-Irish_?

  52. How can I watch this in Canada? Tribeca is even blocking the trailer from Canadian IP addresses. Grrrrr….

  53. I think, at least personally, the part of this post that bothered me was this:

    “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.”

    This can be read in two ways. One in which Xeni is saying that the she is very glad that her parents quickly left the area near the Whites’ stomping grounds, which is quite reasonable. Presumably, this area would have been very economically depressed, and also an area which tolerated a dangerous band of ne’er-do-wells and miscreants. Simply living near the Whites could have been dangerous.

    Another way to parse this statement would have been that Xeni was giving credit to her parents for leaving West Virginia itself as soon as possible. This may have been what she meant, though it doesn’t seem clear to me.

    However, if the second reading was what Xeni intended (and I admit that isn’t clear), she was basically saying that the entire state, overall, was clearly best avoided, and no good place to raise a child.

    I would disagree with that, strenuously, for two reasons. First, there is a great deal of beauty, generosity, and wonder in West Virginia. Having been born and raised there, I can list quite a few cool places, people, and things (how about Green Bank, the radio telescope observatory, for one?).

    Second, there IS a great deal of ignorance, racism, and prejudice that can be found in West Virginia. However, what the state needs is MORE people who are dismayed by ignorance, racisim, and prejudice, not less. The more people who abandon WV as a cultural backwater, the more of a cultural backwater it becomes.

    Having said that, I will admit, in full disclosure, that I too left the state (with great misgivings) to pursue employment elsewhere.

    I am, however, not clear that Xeni had the intention of damning the state, rather than her particular birthplace in it. Given that my own birthplace was a little ‘holler’ with two roads in and out, and a closed coal mine underground leaching PCBs into the water, I can’t condemn the second at all.

  54. My sister’s an emergency room nurse in Oregon. These people sound like a lot of her patients. It’s not just a West Virginia thing.

  55. I grew up in central California. I’m really surprised by most of the responses to this. People ridicule, completely missing the absolute humanity. This clan looks a little extreme, but I’m not totally shocked. Do I want to show them to my friends? Hell yes! Would I go hang out with them? Probably. Would I invite them over? eh… Great post. I’m definitely watching the movie soon.

  56. I’ve been to every state in the union.

    This is not just West Virginia. I’ve found White clans in every state. All of them. Every city.

    Wild? Maybe. Wonderful? I don’t think so.

    The romanticism of that clan is easy to embrace when seen through the filter of the Internet or a movie screen. Imagine being a child in the environment described. Substance abuse, guns, rampant ignorance, poverty, racism.

    Must be hell.

  57. >> Also keep in mind that the Confederate flag today has become more than just a symbol of Dixie pride.

    All niceties aside, the Confederate flag is purely a symbol for “I don’t like you” or “fuck you.” It’s a generic symbol for bitterness and contention. An empty vessel that can be filled with whatever criteria the bearer finds most loathsome at any random moment. Just another brand of attitude like Nike or Pepsi. Something for people to wear like an Old Navy hoodie or paste to their truck. The historical context is completely lost. Pride is the last word that should be attached to that rag.

    1. Seems to me the flag is more about the same thing all flags are about: “I am a member of group X”, rather than “I am not a member of YOUR group, nyah nyah nyah”. More about belonging than rejection.

      Your idea, since you’re not in group X, is that it means “I don’t like you”, but that just doesn’t sit well with putting the flag on a cake. A cake is normally a private thing, made and eaten in private by, at most, the extended family. There’re no “outsiders” who would see it, to express dislike, and anyway, dislike is a strange sentiment to put on a cake. Unless they hate the cake recipient, I guess. Instead, it’s a symbol of solidarity and togetherness: “we’re all group X”.

      But that’s just my view, and I’m from Wales, so I don’t know anything.

    2. @Trotsky: Obviously you’ve never lived in the South for any length of time. Here the Confederate flag is ubiquitous. Some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet — people who would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it — love their Confederate flag. For them it symbolizes pride in who they are and where they come from. (Dewi is absolutely spot-on correct about that.)

      Now, as I pointed out in my earlier post, a lot of these good folks are misguided in embracing the Confederate flag as a symbol of their heritage, since many of their ancestors actually fought for the Union and hated the Confederacy. The celebration of the Rebel flag as a symbol of Southern pride was promoted by pro-Confederacy, pro-“states rights”, pro-segregation propagandists. It’s a distortion of history of Orwellian proportions. I find it sad that so many Southerners wave the Confederate flag without really understanding the history behind it. But, for most of them, it simply means: “I’m proud of who I am and where I come from — I’m not ashamed of the South, or of being a Southerner.”

      Do they wave the flag defiantly? Sure they do. Southerners are a proud people; and they’re sick and tired of folks outside the South looking down their noses at them, criticizing them, and making fun of them. The less respect they get from “Yankees”, the more defiant they become. The more people condemn the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate, the more proudly Southerners wave it as a symbol of pride.

      Now, of course, for many, the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate. Many hate groups wave the flag as a celebration of their hatred for anyone who is not “one of their kind”. And many people (especially African Americans) can’t help but see the flag as a celebration of slavery and segregation, and therefore as a symbol of racism. But that’s not how most Southern whites see it. For them, the flag is a symbol of their home and their heritage. They honestly believe that they are the victims of anti-Southern bigotry; and that haters from outside the South have distorted the true meaning of the Confederate flag in an attempt to vilify everyone who proudly waves it. Of course, they’re misguided. It’s really the good folks who wave the Confederate flag who have a distorted understanding of its true meaning. But these folks ought to be pitied, not condemned. They are the unwitting victims of a decades-old con, perpetrated by regressive forces who have tried to turn this racist and treasonous symbol into a symbol of regional pride.

      1. “For them, the flag is a symbol of their home and their heritage.”

        A home and heritage that explicitly excludes minorities.

        I’m not too worried about rednecks of any stripe. It’s poverty culture, and it’s not drastically different from what you’ll find in Detroit or Brownsville. I grew up with some of the tamer expressions of it (well, tamer than the Whites, anyway).

        But the concept of the Confederacy as “heritage” boggles my mind. I don’t consider the Union as part of my heritage. I’m well aware (thanks especially to Southern-state funded textbooks being ubiquitous in the school system) that the Union was no pure example of goodness. I am not particularly concerned with 160-year-old grudges. The sadness, anger, and “rebellion” are generated out of misdirected anxiety. It’s not carpetbaggers who poison your river water. It’s not Yankees who sell you drugs. The man isn’t keeping you down. You’re doing it to yourself. The flag isn’t going to keep away the feeling that you’re failing your children when you lie awake at night.

      2. >> Obviously you’ve never lived in the South for any length of time.

        I lived in Virginia for a year. I guess whether or not that qualifies me for an opinion depends on your definition of “length of time,” a phrase you chose intentionally to provide you the flexibility to invalidate whatever time frame I cite.

        I have traveled extensively through every state in the South. And you?

        >> Some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet — people who would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it — love their Confederate flag.

        Just out of curiosity, are you a white person referring to other white people? That might have something to do with it. A lot of these “salt of the earth” Americans are amazingly polite when dealing with people on their approval list, and a whole lot less so with those who don’t make the cut as real people.

        And it’s not just a Southern thing. I’m a clean-cut white guy. I recall years ago in Fairbanks, Alaska, I was putting fuel in my tank at a gas station when a motorist at a nearby pump started to chat me up in a very casual and friendly way. I thought: “What a friendly guy!” His conversation somehow segued quite seamlessly into a very polite, calm screed about “Jews and avttref.” I guess he thought I was part of the club or something. I’ve found that all over America. Every city, every state. It’s so subtle, so polite, so pervasive.

        Of course, most of the racists are not so crass as to use deprecated epithets. They’ll instead use phrases like “inner city,” “thug,” or “homeboys.”

        I’ve known lots and lots and lots of racist people who are sugar sweet, but also homophobic, xenophobic, and who will tell you all about their views on inferior people with the most soothing dulcet tones, all while serving you a refreshing glass of sweet tea and perhaps a homemade biscuit.

        They’ll give you the shirt off your back if you look and think just like them.

        1. I never claimed that there are no racists in the South. There are way too many racists in the South. The fact that you’ve had the misfortune of meeting some of them (as have I) does not invalidate the point I was making.

          I never claimed that people who seem nice can’t harbor racist sentiments. Like you, I’ve met lots of “salt of the earth” types who are extremely polite and friendly to me (yes, I am white, by the way), but who subtly, or not so subtly, let it be known that they don’t really care much for minorities. The fact that you’ve met some friendly racists (as have I) also does not invalidate the point I was making.

          What I claimed is that many — perhaps most — white Southerners see the Confederate flag not as a symbol of hatred but as a symbol of pride in their own Southern heritage. As I said, I think that’s misguided: The Confederate flag originally represented treason (i.e. armed rebellion against the United States of America), motivated by white-supremacism (i.e. a desire to continue treating African Americans as chattel). No Southerner ought to take pride in that: especially not those whose ancestors fought to preserve the Union, as mine did. But, after decades of pro-Confederate propaganda in the South, most white Southerners don’t connect the Rebel flag to treason, slavery, or even segregation — they simply see it as the symbol of the South.

          Perhaps in your time in the South you never met someone who displayed a Rebel flag (on a t-shirt, hat, belt buckle, vanity plate, decal, etc.) who was not an avowed racist; but in my four decades in the South, I have met many. There are actually schools near where I live that still use Confederate symbols as their mascots; so the students who go to those schools display Confederate flags as a sign of school spirit. I’ll even admit that when I was a kid (before I knew better), I had a Confederate flag hanging on my bedroom wall, and even had a Confederate flag belt buckle. Like many Southerners, I was a fan of The Dukes of Hazard back in the ’80s, and loved the car with the Rebel flag painted on the roof. (Okay, I mainly liked watching Daisy Duke in her Daisy Dukes; but that’s beside the point.) When I was growing up, we were taught that Southerners ought to take pride in our Southern heritage, and that included celebrating the Confederacy. The whole slavery, segregation, and racism angle was always glossed over, of course. We were taught that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery; it was about “states’ rights”. We were taught that General Lee and the Southern armies fought with honor, but that the Yankees were scoundrels who terrorized the South during the war. We were even taught that slavery wasn’t really all that bad, and that most slaves were well-treated. We were basically fed the Gone with the Wind myth of the Old South.

          Fortunately, when I got older I learned the truth. But lots of Southerners have never learned the truth. I pity them for still believing the pro-Confederate lie, of course; but I can’t blame them for their own ignorance, because I was once in their shoes. They are victims of a very effective propaganda campaign.

          But to claim that the Confederate flag always reflects bitterness and contention is unfair. While it’s true that some disaffected people use the flag in much the same way that they use their middle finger, not everyone who displays the Confederate flag is saying “screw you” to everyone in the world who doesn’t look, act, and think exactly like them. Some are just misguided souls who see the flag as nothing more than a symbol of the place they call “home”, and are hopelessly in denial about the negative connotations of that symbol. These people need to be educated, not vilified.

          1. Sapere_aude, you nailed, 100%. I grew up in the South and had a Confederate flag on my bedroom wall as a kid. To me, it was a perfectly innocent symbol, a way to say “I’m a Southerner!”

            I literally had no idea that anyone would take offense to such a thing, any more than they’d take offense to an American flag (which I also had, as a way to say “I’m an American!”)

            As I got older, of course, I encountered people who had very different views on the flag, and saw it as a symbol of hate. My first reaction to that was, “What an idiot! It’s got nothing to do with hate. It’s my ‘I’m a Southerner’ flag.”

            I’ve since wised up, but I have no doubt in my mind that many (not all, maybe not even most) of the Southerners who proudly display their “I’m a Southerner!” flag to this day think exactly the way I did growing up. It just doesn’t occur to them to look at it otherwise.

            For those that it does occur to, the first (and sometimes only) reaction is denial and dismissal, simply because what’s being told to them is so wildly different from the way they’ve always looked at it. It’s human nature.

  58. Anon writes: “We perpetuate the myths and legends of various hillbillies, hell-raisers, and Hatfields/ McCoys to keep big city folk away from our state.” Unlikely. I might as well take it on faith that gangbangers in Brownsville or Washington Heights here in NY are clocking each other in order to scare away Iowans. No sentient being believes that all West Virginians are like the obviously disturbed and doomed people featured here and in the film. But the notion that masses of people willfully act like low-lifes, criminals, and sociopaths because they don’t want city slickers “ruining” their rural paradise is … well, it’s just silly.

  59. Xeni Jardin has the right to say what she wants about whatever she wants to say it about. But two statements really bother me as a native West Virginian going back three generations: “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,” and, “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.”

    Xeni, maybe the people you talk to from West Virginia – like you – are a little too quick to make broad statements about “a place” as if it were all one geographical and cultural entity. Is California “a place”? New York? Great Britain? Scotland and West Virginia? Are people from Skye equivalent to the adorable junkies in Glasgow stereotyped in “Trainspotting”?

    I live in Morgantown, a university town and health care center for the region, recently singled out as the small city with the nation’s lowest unemployment rate. North Central West Virginia, the Northern Panhandle, the Eastern Panhandle, and the manufacturing centers of the Ohio Valley are all very different culturally and economically from the Southern Coalfields, where the Whites are.

    Wandering trails and eating Velveeta does not constitute knowledge of any place. It is one set of experiences. Are the Whites unique to West Virginia? Maybe their particular brand of craziness has a West Virginia – or Appalachian – flavor, but the culture they represent – fucked up and out of control – exists everywhere. You will find new mothers snorting drugs in birthing rooms in every city in every state.

    These are people with big, big problems. Their problem is not being in West Virginia – it’s being in the White family.

  60. It’s not just a WV thing. There was a family, actually a single person – Ken McElroy, who terrorized a town in northern Missouri not that long ago. The town police were afraid of this guy. The town eventually had enough of him and one day one of the residents shot him dead. The rest of the town never gave up who did it. So I think this kind of familial curiosity happens all over this diverse country. The Appalachian mountains are just one pocket of poor people in this country. There are plenty of others.

    As to the origin of the name Appalachian……
    While exploring inland along the northern coast of Florida in 1528, the members of the Narváez expedition, including Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, found a Native American village near present-day Tallahassee, Florida whose name they transcribed as Apalchen or Apalachen [a.paˈla.tʃɛn]. The name was soon altered by the Spanish to Apalachee and used as a name for the tribe and region spreading well inland to the north. Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition first entered Apalachee territory on June 15, 1528 and applied the name. Now spelled “Appalachian”, it is the fourth oldest surviving European place-name in the U.S.[8]

    After the de Soto expedition in 1540, Spanish cartographers began to apply the name of the tribe to the mountains themselves. The first cartographic appearance of Apalchen is on Diego Gutierrez’ map of 1562; the first use for the mountain range is the map of Jacques le Moyne de Morgues in 1565.[9]

    It was not some late 20th century invention of a government bureaucrat.

  61. This subculture is not unique to West Virginia. People like this exist in every rural impoverished area in every state, including California.

  62. Question please!

    My gal has a high tolerance for just about anything other than animals getting hurt or mistreated.

    Any of that? Thanks for the post!

  63. I just went and watched this movie on my DVR. It was a classic work of art.

    It is really worth the watch. Sure, you may need to smoke some weed to be able to cope with the wreck-less abandon in this movie, but I don’t deny the golden nuggets hidden in this here flick, folks.

  64. Don’t you hate it, when youre typing and you add a an a here, or don’t hit an apostrophe there?

  65. Personally I find it more insulting that people would like so much to plaster over these folks and pretend they don’t matter than some one making a documentary about them.

    Oh the cracks in the facade, don’t you know everyone has an obligation to generate PR for rich whites in the south?!

  66. You know I live in Boone County and I am absolutely disgraced about this documentary. First of all there are people like the Whites everywhere it just so happens that the ones here somehow caught the attention of the right person years ago and have drug this community through the mud and made it out to look like a terrible place. It is not a terrible place and there are a whole lot of nice very educated people who do have nice homes and are not at the bottom of the fence post that live here. But do you see these documentarys showing any of that. NOOOOO!! What you do see is them picking out the absolute worst things they can possibly find about the county and showing that. I am sure I could tour any county in the US and find poor people, rednecks, people who THINK they are bada@@@@, and people who live off of wellfare. The biggest majority of this community is NOTHING like these people and most of us are absolutely ASHAMED that they have gotten publicity for acting so IGNORANT!!

  67. I think Northern Americans view the Confederate flag in the same way that much of the world views the stars-n-stripes: a sign of gung-ho, gun-totin’, bigoted, intolerant hatred, waved by people who’ve been praying to the flag every day since they were in kindergarten.

    That view is as wrong when applied to all Southerners, as it is when applied to all Americans.

    Sure, you guys do often tend to have a slightly creepy flag fetish going on, but no more so than most people have over, say, books. That school oath-prayer is also a bit creepy, but heck, in Wales we used to be made to sing the Lord’s Prayer in morning assembly! (So I totally cracked up when I read Matthew 6 and found where it came from!)

    And even in Texas, I’ve yet to meet a single American who I’d brand as racist and bigoted. The same cannot be said of my home country.

    1. Right on. As a fellow foreigner in US I completely agree with you. South to North cultural divide is real and flag is just a symbol to latch on. Also as someone said here before we are all bigots by default. It is our evolutionary programming which chimes in to mistrust anyone who looks different. It takes a lot of conditioning and interaction with others to get over that.

  68. My wife, a good friend and I watched this movie yesterday. (Amazon VOD is awesome, BTW) It’s a pretty good flick. Very interesting, some parts probably aren’t new to anyone that’s ever watched any of the “Addiction” documentaries, but the whole picture is worth the time. I wish that had spent a little more on the dichotomy between tap-dancing and being a hell-raiser.

  69. Let me preface my comment by saying I know a little bit about the people of West Virginia: I compiled and authored Historic Photos of West Virginia, wrote for The West Virginia Encyclopedia, and for over 13 years I’ve been writing a West Virginia history column for The Exponent Telegram newspaper in Clarksburg.

    Are there families like the Whites in West Virginia? Oh, yeah. Are they representative of the majority of people in the Mountain State? Not by a long shot.

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but it sounds like it does a very good job of capturing the lifestyle of what is a sub-subgroup widely known as PWT – poor white trash. I’ve found them everywhere I’ve lived, including Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia, but they aren’t representative of those states, and they aren’t representative of the majority of West Virginians, including many of those who live in poverty or just down the road from it. When I was a taxi driver in Austin, I learned that it is a human trait to remember the worst people and events most vividly.

    To those who watch this film – and it sounds like it is worth watching – please remember West Virginia is also home to high-tech companies, to the FBI’s national fingerprint bureau, to universities with international partnerships as part of their curriculum, and mostly to a lot of friendly, proud, polite, self-sufficient people.

    It’s also been home to presidential cabinet members, at least one renowned opera singer (Phyllis Curtin), Carter G. Woodson (“Father of Black History”), Medal of Honor winners, the first recipients of the William Faulker and O.Henry writing awards, and a whole bunch of others who don’t resemble the Whites in the slightest. By the way, July 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. The first American solider to die in land combat there was Kenneth Shadrick from Skin Creek Hollow near Charleston.

  70. After reading the article this production seems to me like a good representation of a subculture, but viewers should remember not to stereotype West Virginians. I’ve lived in West Virginia most of my life and the majority of the population is simply nothing like this family. I find it kind of sad that this horrible stereotype is perpetuated in the media, but the state’s long history and beautiful natural resources are often ignored.

  71. While growing up in rural central virginia I was exposed to a very strange subculture that self identified as Black Rednecks. Perhaps born by the increasing crossover appeal of hiphop in rural communities these youths viewed their social and economic class, specifically that they livde in a poor southern trailer park, as being more important than their distinct racial identity. Groups of admittedly loutish youths, both black and white hanging out together, would proudly display confederate flags without a sense of irony. While most of them were not articulate enough to phrase it as such I got the impression that the pride in their heritage the flag represented was based not so much on a love of the actual confederacy but a respect for the historical events that shaped their culture and created the, to them quite real, divide between the north and the south and the perceived hatred of southerners in the mainstream culture. Since I had moved to the area towards the end of elementary school from the rather segregated areas around Washington DC it really blew my mind. Especially since many of the white youths in the area also went out of their way to emulate black hiphop stars, even going so far as to refer to the trailer parks as Country Ghettos. I can’t say how widespread this phenomenon was, it may have only existed in my one town, but later in life the experience has always lead me to play devil’s advocate for the meaning of the confederate flag even if i would never wear or display it personally.

  72. So many people get so wrapped up in whether this is representative of Wv or not, whether Jesco and family are poor white trash or archetype heroes, whether they should be locked in a cage for the public good or saluted for being the last representatives of free individuals, that we fail to appreciate that in the end, they are people just like the rest of us, who have played the hand they were dealt, for right or wrong. It has been suggested that some of the scenes of this film were, um, embellished, which is not so very hard to appreciate when you consider that the makers of Jackass weere responsible for it.

    Despite the blatant references to dope (like 20 million Americans do not smoke weed, or the FDA did not approve painpills) and the obligatory focus on violence and The Law (like the Whites invented it!), I saw many glimpses into the humanity of the family, from Mamie taking over the matriarch’s reigns, Jesco’s comment that his home was his own private prison, but that was ok because it was quiet, Kirk’s moves to redeme herself as a mother and most poignantly, the digging of Bertie Mae’s grave, which was hands-on, while most of us who might look down our noses at this clan would never think to do this, prefering to have someone with a bckhoe do the hard work for us.

    In the end, I am reminded of the expression “there but for the Grace of God…” and I find myself less shocked at the Whites or repulsed by their behavior than I am at the holier-than-thou attitude of those who either are part of the established exploiters who have worked for two centuries to keep the average West Virginian enslaved (or else are tools and appologists for the Old Money), or who are so uptight that they simply do not know how to cut loose once in a while and have a good time.

  73. “If these people were Hispanic or African American, their economic plight would have no audience here”

    well I live in Canada (Ontario) and we seems we can’t get our fill of documentaries about the many Asian, South American, and African areas of exploitation by various corporations.

    makes great fuel for one’s useless righteous indignation.

    As for the White family, I have yet to find an urban setting that is devoid of the exact same people. I think its more about poverty than it is about geographical location

  74. I was born and raised in Bluefield, West Virginia and have lived in Appalachia for most of my life and, as a political scientist, one of whose specialties is political-economic development (in part inspired by my interest in Malthusianism and resource curse due to being from Appalachia), I have long been interested in the structural poverty which predominates in my region. Locally, those in the coalfields (including western West Virginia) are caught in a classic conundrum – they know that, absent coal mining, large portions of Appalachia can’t support significant rural populations. Yet they also know that coal mining supports a deeply problematic economic and social structure and is injurious the local environment. Combine this with the fact that the poorest parts of Appalachia (western West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and far western southwest Virginia) have been largely neglected until very recently by the Federal government in terms of industrialization and development programs (rather than natural resource exploitation programs), as in the case of the panhandles of West Virginia, the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge of western Virginia, east Tennessee, Ohio Riverine Kentucky and West Virginia, and western North Carolina, and the fact that those same latter regions have the vast majority of Appalachia’s institutions of higher learning, and you have the conditions present today.

    That said, Appalachians are a diverse people – they are not simply rural, and while poverty is high, they are not all poor. Indeed, rural poverty is arguably more escapable than urban poverty, given that energy and food costs can be more easily offset. Appalachians are a distinct people as well, in terms of their culture, but they are still Americans, and that is worth remembering in and of itself.

    Finally, I think it should be noted why Appalachians are sensitive about their culture – frankly, it is because we are a quasi “post-colonial” people who have for years been at the butt of jokes in virtually every cultural forum, Southern, Northern, and Western, nearly constantly. That doesn’t mean we can’t take a joke – most of us figure that if we can laugh at the Family Guy’s constant poking fun of New Englanders, we can handle their “hillbilly” jokes as well. What it does mean, however, is that we prefer not to have “hammer on the iron” generalizations, beating into our psyches the image of a people who at worst are lazy and stupid and at best have “escaped” the horrors of our mountains. The truth, as usual, is in-between this. What Appalachians want is gauged, balanced commentary, not newscaster-esque “let’s find the poorest, loudest, hickest person in town and interview them” methods of covering our region. Many Appalachians have chosen to stay in the mountains and accept that we’ll accrue a little less wealth but know that we’re helping to establish sustainable educated towns and cities – but many of us have left particular towns and cities that have been destroyed by geographic, political, or economic factors beyond their residents’ control and moved to towns that are more sustainable (the kind that are, for instance, installing wind farms so that they can replace dying coal jobs). We know we have problems, and we don’t mind talking about them, but we don’t want the discussion to be demeaning or riven primarily or exclusively generalities.

    To end I want to add a post from a blog I used to edit called “Hillbilly Savants,” responding to an editorial which was deeply anti-Appalachian. It lays out my thoughts on the subject of the region’s history and structural violence as well as I can muster (at least without getting out the books!).

  75. Greetings from Boone County West Virginia. That’s right I’m in the middle of it all. The coalfields, the poverty, the Whites, and all the scary “redneck Hillbillies” Oh my. But guess what I have internet, indoor plumbing, and my family even wears shoes. And yes for those of you that did not catch on I was being sarcastic.You can not judge a whole state by one family.

    ” 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.)THIS TO ME IS A VERY SAD THING TO SAY

    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.) NOW THAT JUST SOUNDS NASTY I HAVE LIVED HERE ALMOST MY WHOLE LIFE AND NEVER EVEN THOUGHT OF EATING SUCH THINGS

    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.”

    When I was younger I thought I wanted out of this place, so I moved a few times, but always found myself coming home, they say home is where your heart is and my heart is here. I love where I live and I love the people. I have been many places in my life and I have never met people like you find in WV. Just good hearted nice down to earth people. As everyone seen back in April after the Upper Big Branch mine disaster the whole state came together and were all there for each other.
    You find people like the White family everywhere not just in West Virginia!

  76. This is my 1st post on this sight…just happened to cross it looking to find the d/l of the movie…hence the reply …
    I grew up in WV… family full of coal miners…both sides of my paternal grandparents even owned 3 coal mines…I think this movie is hilarious…I KNOW people like that….but the key difference (in my mind) is between the label of “redneck” and “hillbilly.”
    A true West Virginian has a little hillbilly in them. It’s the mix of Appalachian mountain heritage with the love of nature. Rednecks are very similar in the knowledge of mountain “livin'” but their downfall seems to be with the prejudice they develop toward “outsiders.” If you can’t relate with them on some level then you better keep on movin’ ’cause they ain’t interested.
    As far as the movie and the White family…kudos for being who you are…most families from WV wouldn’t have the guts to put their lives on film or it wouldn’t be that

    P.S. there is a good/bad side of every race,so the stereotypical views are funny if you know how to take a joke.

  77. Your essay and review were outstanding. I don’t know who you are, but you have a great head on your shoulders, a sensitive heart, and a fine way of expressing yourself. I have known such people and lived in Eastern Kentucky, missed the film in Louisville, will buy it when I can. But this film required a lot of depth to balance off such a combination of themes without apparently having some kind of harmful axe to grind, a stellar example of documentary film making. You can see some of my work on issues in American society at Continue to think and write. You are good at both. JDW

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