According to one of the lawyer types whose attempts to adequately quantify the White family that is the subject of The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, the family is one of ten such clans that create most of the crime in the state. Another muses that while they never work, they always have money. In a nutshell, that’s what this unique documentary, by Julian Nitzberg, is about.
Nitzberg’s idea was to follow the clan founded by D. Ray and Bertie May White for a year. Inside the first half, we seen probably half-a-dozen felonies and the Whites aren’t even warmed up, yet. The film is filled with odd images – like Hank Williams III singing while Jesco White, the eldest White brother [and heir to D. Ray’s gift for a mountain version of tap dancing – D. Ray was murdered on his way to a performance] exhibits some of his best moves; like grandson Brandon calmly describing how he shot an uncle’s face off – juxtaposed with the uncle’s recollections of the event – and a pattern emerges of a family that hustles to survive, and enjoys every minute of it.
Like most documentaries, The Wild & Wonderful Whites has its share of talking heads; only these talking heads are lined with the joys and sorrows of hard lives lived hard. You can almost see the life lines/wrinkles appear – especially in sequences where Brandon’s mom, Sue Bob comes out of court after learning that Brandon was sentenced to fifty years, eligible for parole in twenty-five and moans that he’ll be forty-seven when he gets out and she’ll be dead and gone; or in the sequences where Kirk White loses her baby, Monica to Child Protective Services and decides to check into rehab so she can get her back. The camera also captures Bertie May’s eighty-fourth birthday party – a party she can’t really enjoy because her children are smoking up and she hates that.
The trailer for The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West makes it seem like the film is some kind of romp, but the farther into it we get, the more it seems to be about a family caught in the grip of an unexpressed fatalism. We learn that, before he was killed, D. Ray had worked in the coal mines in Boone County and that he’s gotten sick and had to give up that job. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Mamie White belts out Coal Miner’s Daughter during a town festival/memorial day.
As another lawyerly type notes, the Whites are from the same kind of folks that spawned the Hatfield-McCoy feud. They even refer to themselves as hillbillies. As an alternative to the West Virginia Whites, there’s a section that features Jeco’s only remaining brother, Poney, who upped and moved his family to Minnesota – where they live happy middle-class lives, lives where no will refuse them employment because of their name.
What keeps the film from descending into heartbreaking melancholy is the combination of the family’s joke ‘em if they can’t take a #$!& attitude and the many brilliant songs that play throughout – many written about them – by the likes Hank III, Deke Dickerson and even the Kentucky Headhunters.
If a great documentary has to give us food for thought and a unique point of view on its chosen topic, then The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is a great documentary. Nitzberg captures the family so well that we can party with them – and they are charismatic, so we definitely buy into it – and relate to them when they’re down – as when Jesco bipolar disorder shifts him into high manic state.
As interesting as the Whites are, I’m not sure I’d want to see them on an eighty-foot screen. It might just too overwhelming. The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, some of the moms in the clan might be among the worst influences for their children, and some of their child might bad examples because they’ve seen their parents behave like that all their life, but at least one White has fled to a more reasonable environment while another has chosen to get clean to get her daughter back.
Even in spite of these the modern day outlaws that are the Whites, are beginning with trembling knees to look at their pasts and connect to how wrong it must be. At least two of the White have gone against clan beliefs.
Until further notice, though, there will remain The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia – as sung about by the likes of Hank III! And they just don’t care what you think.
Final Grade ; B+.