I've written before about my appreciation for West Virginia doumentray filmmaker Jacob Young. His almost-famous examination of "Dancing Outlaw" Jesco White led me to explore all of his works. I've been back to the well many times since. Over the last decade-and-a-half I've periodically wondered just what the last king of the mountain dancers and his clan have been up to. I always thought I'd have to run into Young again to get the scoop. I was shocked recently to learn of the existence of a follow-up documentary released in 2009, and produced by "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville. Naturally I had to own a copy.
Sadly, "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" was made without the participation of Jacob Young. Instead it was directed by one-time collaborator Julian Nitzberg. Apparently Nitzberg learned about Jesco when he was making a film about Hasil Adkins. While at a bar in Boone County in the late-80's, he witnessed Mamie White breaking up a fight. After making it a point to meet this woman (who continually insisted that she was on acid), he was persuaded to bring in Young for a look at her brother Jessie. And that's how Jesco became a living cult figure.
Twenty years later, the entire family seemed ripe for a revisit. Nitzberg and his crew received funding from MTV to spend a year in Boone County, catching up with the latest shenanigans of the Whites. Would the events surrounding these people be film-worthy? I guess that's a matter of opinion. But it turns out that trouble is never that far away from these folks. Instead of a focus on Jessie, Nitzberg concentrated on his siblings, nephews, nieces, and cousins. Sue Bob, Mousie, Kirk, and the little boy Tylor figure heavily in the ongoing drama.
The Whites all seem more than willing to share the details of their sordid collective existence. There are many sequences of family members snorting, popping, and smoking various drugs. They pull no punches and withhold very few sentiments about the people that surround them. They are in and (sometimes) out of jail for all manner of offenses. And they don't seem to ever truly learn from the mostly awful consequences of their behavior. The legacy of mischief and outlaw behavior runs deep in their blood.
Yet it's not as if people like the Whites are confined to West Virginia. The stuff they get into can be found a half hour outside of most cities in the country. Meanwhile city-dwellers exhibit their own particular brand of madness. And it is obvious that the filmmakers have some level of affection for their subjects, despite the glaring elements of exploitation running through their document. After all the Whites know they are on camera and seem to have no compunction about doing what they do for the public eye. Conversely they seem quite proud to run wild while avoiding work on the taxpayer's dime.
The problem is that (ultimately) the Whites are not that shocking in this day and age. While there are moments where the impact of their actions seems to strike them, it's difficult to muster any lasting symapthy. We must come to the inescapable conclusion that they know what they are doing. If that makes this a modern-day horror tale, then so be it. But the exploitation of this family is only a microcosmic example of what happens to the poor in our society. And that is truly horrifying.