The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

The very wild and extremely wonderful Whites of West Virginia are a close-knit, hard-partying, hard-living family of outlaws and misfits, Appalachian royalty, the descendants of renown mountain dancer D. Ray White and his wife the “miracle woman” Birtie Mae. Like the majority of Boone County residents, D. Ray grew up working in the coalmines. He contracted cancer and left the mines to perform his unique style of dance, but was murdered after the filming of Talking Feet, the PBS documentary about him.

The coalmines may have taken their toll on D. Ray, but his children never had to work in them, he saw to that. His son Jesco carries on the dance tradition while his other surviving son, Poney, left Boone County to raise a family in Minnesota where he feels they’ll have a better chance.  Jesco and the other Whites live as notorious outlaws, drawn to drinking, drugging, fighting and raising hell.  Jesco becomes a star himself, while his sisters cope as best they can; all are beset by tragedy, their adventures chronicled by songwriters like Hank Williams III, Big and Rich and the Kentucky Headhunters.

Director Julien Nitzberg and producer/assistant director Storm Taylor follow the Whites for a pivotal year in their lives, as family members are released from jail, get sent to prison, do drugs, and deal with child custody issues, infidelity, attempted murder, and death.

Mousie, just released from prison, hunts down her husband and drags him back to the pharmacy where they were married–prescription drugs play a huge part in lives of the Whites and all of Boone County–before bringing him back to her bed, overlooking the fact that he occasionally has slept with her cousin Kirk who is now pregnant by a man Kirk stabbed for being unfaithful. After the stabbing, Kirk’s grandma Birtie Mae, who has looked after over thirty children, cleans up the blood and hides the knife.

Sue Bob, “the sexy one” must cope with her son’s imprisonment for attempting to murder his aunt Mamie White’s boyfriend; Kirk may loose custody of her newborn daughter unless she makes radical changes in her life, while the entire family faces Birtie Mae’s impending death.

Life in Boone County doesn’t hold much hope for the future, but the Whites make the most of their time here on earth, spending their time hustling, rustling, fighting and fornicating, with a deep, pragmatic sense of morality based in the amorality of outlaw life and a fatalistic spirituality born out of poverty, the corruption and damage wrought by the coalmines, and the omnipresent threat of violence and death.

Nitzberg doesn’t romanticize the Whites, nor does he patronize them, instead letting their openness about their hardscrabble lives unfold for us, told mainly through the stories of the three generations of White women, with side trips into Jesco’s strange fame and unique talent. As they present themselves with forthright pride and a perverse dignity and a who-gives-a-shit attitude, the Whites proudly raise their middle finger at the coalmines, authority and conformity. The Whites present a unique streak of the American spirit, one which might make some people shudder–and some in Boone County aren’t too thrilled about the Whites at all, viewing them as bad representatives of the area–but their strength, pride, loyalty, resilience, faith and love are virtues that shine through their tarnished lives.