When it comes to the White family of Boone County, West Virginia, there’s their world, and then there’s the world everyone else is a part of. They don’t live by the rules most other people live by. They have no respect for authority. Law enforcement has had more run-ins with them than with any other family in the county. They’ve broken just about every law and have been arrested on just about every charge: Larceny, prescription fraud, shootings, armed robbery, embezzlement, forgery, drug abuse, perjury, fighting, custody battles, etc., etc. A judge, who’s now retired, used to say that if ten families were altogether excluded from Boone County, the crime rate would be cut by just about half; there’s no question that the Whites would be one of those ten families.
Why would director Julian Nitzberg choose to document a year in the lives of such people? Defense Attorney Peter Hendricks seems to wonder the same thing: “There’s a kid down here from a very humble upbringing – he was admitted to MIT. MIT. I mean, why isn’t someone following him around with a camera?” He already knows the answer, and it seems to dishearten him: “The Whites have that kind of charisma. Not only can they draw you in – they keep you there.” Indeed, most of us are innately attracted to that which is different. We may not always want to be a part of it, but we sure do love examining it from a distance. The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia does what all good documentaries do: It gives us that safety, that sense of being an observer without having to risk our well being.
This is an honest, unflinching, and all around amazing film. It’s not merely a portrait of an untraditional American family; it’s a glimpse into the lives of people with an altogether different mindset. The Whites value nothing. They have no interests or goals, and while they generally seem to acknowledge the existence of God and the Devil, they have no real system of beliefs. They live only for immediate gratification, most of them freely indulging in drugs and alcohol and partying. They have an almost animalistic will to survive, occasionally from the outside world but mostly from each other, many of them having participated in violent domestic disputes. They make their money not by working, but by selling prescription pain pills at a slightly higher price than what they bought them for.
Theirs is a long line. It starts with D. Ray White, well known as a mountain dancer before his murder in 1985 at the hand of his daughter’s husband. He was married to Bertie Mae White, known affectionately as the Miracle Woman for selflessly raising thirty-plus abandoned children in addition to her own. At her eighty-fourth birthday party, she holds her nose and shakes her head as her children and grandchildren smoke pot in front of her, apparently having a celebration of their own. “I’m eighty-four years old today,” she muses, “and the computers and the drugs are gonna take over the world.”
Her daughter is Mamie White, who proudly proclaims herself as “the biggest, meanest, and baddest of all the White family.” Her sister is Sue Bob, a former stripper, whose son, Brandon, is in jail for almost having killed Mamie’s boyfriend. Her brother is Jesco, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a mountain dancer. He was the subject of the 1991 PBS special The Dancing Outlaw and has a history of depression and other mental problems, possibly from ten years of sniffing gasoline. His mental turmoil is defined so clearly by the tattoo on his back; it’s of two portraits, one of Elvis, the other of Charlie Manson, both representative of his conflicting personalities.
The most engaging family member is Bertie Mae’s granddaughter, nicknamed Kirk. She does drugs. She loves to fight. She’s been in jail so many times that she lost count. She had every intention of killing her ex-boyfriend when she found out he was sleeping with her cousin. Her young son, Taylor, hates her ex-boyfriend too, and lets us know this by flipping off the camera. Six months after the start of the interview, Kirk gives birth to a baby girl. Kirk says she wants her daughter to have a better life, which is something most mothers say. The baby is promptly taken away by Child Protective Services; if Kirk hopes to regain custody of her baby, she must enter rehab. This paves the way for a surprisingly touching apology to Taylor, who always feels he’s being left behind.
Theories have been proposed as to why the Whites are the way they are. One is geographical and cultural isolation. Another ties into West Virginia’s coal industry, notoriously exploited by wealthy outside interests. Mining is one of the most dangerous jobs there is; many West Virginian miners have seen friends and colleagues die in horrible accidents, instilling a pessimistic viewpoint that got passed from generation to generation. Interesting, how a psychological profile can sum up an entire population. Interesting still, how a West Virginian accepted by MIT is considered an exception to the rule, as if to suggest that West Virginians in general are lawless hillbilly rednecks with no hope of a future. Do the Whites represent the entire state? I don’t know. But they certainly are fatalistic. “I come in this world with nothin’,” says Mamie, “I guess I’ll die with nothin’. But at least the world knows who the f— we are.”