The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is a good film about bad people.
The Julien Nitzberg directed documentary was produced by Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville and it shows us a year in the life of the famous and infamous White family of Boone County, West Virginia — a clan known for both criminal conduct and dancing. The criminality involves copious amounts of drug use, stabbings, bar fights, armed robbery, jealous rages, standoffs with the police and shooting rampages. The dancing is a unique form of tap dance that’s done in rhythmic accompaniment, often to live music and it’s really pretty damn good.
If dancing and crime sound like a bizarre but interesting combination, then you’ll understand why the White family make a great doc subject. To repeat; these are bad people. Really awful people. But they are fascinating to watch, especially with the filmmaker’s skillful use of editing and motion graphics to compress 12 months in the life of about a dozen people into a film that lasts an hour and a half.
This isn’t the first film to feature the Whites. The Wikipedia entry for the Whites – yes, they have a Wikiepedia entry – lists no less than five films about them. The family initially came to prominence in a PBS documentary from the 1980s called The Dancing Outlaw about Jesco White, who is also a central figure in the Wild and Wonderful Whites of West. Their level of celebrity hasn’t exactly helped them lead better lives, though.
The fillmakers lived around the Whites for a year and got over 500 hours of footage so you get plenty of cringeworthy behavior – Mousie White’s post-prison-release drunken seduction of her cheating husband, drug use in the hospital room where Kirk White has just given birth and a detailed explanation of the events that led Brandon White to shoot his cousin in the face several times. There is a sense in which it’s easy to dismiss this film as a very detailed, on-location episode of The Jerry Springer Show or what the longest, best episode of Cops would look like if you let This American Life’s Ira Glass direct. But it’s exactly that detail that makes this a thoughtful look at a ptoblem that extends far beyond the Whites.
What’s the key to the White family and their behavior? The standard answers would be drugs, mental illness, poverty and to be sure, the film presents evidence of all of these if that’s the sort of explanation that appeals to you. However, these factors are all excuses to varying degrees and they don’t explain, for example, why other people growing up poor don’t all turn out like the Whites. The filmmakers give a quick nod to this when they make mention of a young man from the same area who grew up in the same poverty but was accepted to MIT. Why did he go one direction and the Whites go another?
The film’s answer to what’s wrong with the Whites is especially surprising in this day and age – a sense of entitlement.
Here’s where the filmmakers manage to give this film a good deal of weight without being preachy. About three quarters away into the film, a West Virginia District Attorney describes the root of the Whites problems as their participation in what he calls the entitlement and disability culture. His description of the Whites unfortunately applies to millions of Americans; “they don’t expect a lot out of life and they live for the immediates.”
The D.A. says that patriarch D Ray White understood the social security system better than most attorneys and was a master at gaming the system and getting “crazy checks” for his whole family. Manie White brags about getting a check from the government because she’s crazy. You hear the filmmaker ask, “why are you crazy?” and she gives a profoundly honest answer – “Because I wanna be.”
And that’s about all that the film does in terms of commentary. No heavy-handed theory, just a few lines of supposition. This makes the commentary all the more powerful. In about 30 seconds of screen time, the movie unlocks the importance of the other 88 minutes of entertaining, outrageous and ultimately just plain sad mayhem.