As part of the Tribeca Film Festival, the long awaited film about the White family of West Virginia called The Wild & Wonderful Whites has been made available through some pay-per-view and on-demand services (check your provider), and through Amazon.com.
Just about a year ago this week, this film created high controversy when the trailer was released. Its graphic nature and the fact that Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville was a producer made some wonder if this film was exploiting the Whites. The situation got worse the very next week when Jesco White was arrested for “conspiring” to buy cocaine. MTV bailed Jesco out of jail, and the charges were eventually dropped.
Some also asked if another movie about the White family was necessary. The original PBS documentary “Dancing Outlaw” and followup films and appearances seemed to already give the White family enough exposure. There was a lot of rancor and suspicion of a film that nobody had seen, and because the distribution was up in the air, nobody could see. Until now.
This movie is NOT Jackass meets COPS. In a word, this movie is a tragedy, though watching it I felt that different people would take different things from it–a mark of a good movie. I had an uncomfortable feeling when watching the original PBS doc. For something with PBS’s name behind it, it sure had a feeling of “info-tainment” as Jesco did little more than make a fool of himself so that people could marvel at the hillbilly oddity like a PT Barnum bit. Not to say the PBS one didn’t have it’s moments, but watching this new movie solidified some of my concerns about the previous ones.
Also, this film is not about Jesco– the main focus of previous works. By the end of the movie, you’re surprised how little face time he gets. Jesco’s there, but the movie primarily follows the lives of D. Ray White’s daughters and granddaughters, and if there was one main focus it was Jesco’s sister Mamie. This was wise of the filmmakers. Most watchers will already know who Jesco is, and another Jesco movie is not what is hungered for. The premise of this documentary was to follow the White’s for a year, and it happened to be that in that year, most of the action did not involve Jesco. He might have made a better “star,” but the filmmakers followed the true story.
The trailer says this is a “Different Kind of Documentary,” but one of the unexpected things about it was it’s straightforwardness. There are many sensational things in the movie, but its not sensationalized. It is devoid of “tricks” that might put more butts in the seats, but might be dishonest to the timeline or disrespectful to the Whites. Not to say it is a bore, far from it. The makers understood that letting the story tell itself in the end would be more enlightening, entertaining, and impactful.
And this is an impactful movie. It starts of telling the fate of D Ray White and his sons. D Ray: murdered. Son Mark: murdered. Dorsey: Killed by a self-inflicted gun shot wound. Jesco: The Dancing Outlaw, hobbled by a decade of huffing gasoline.
The beginning of the movie mostly chronicles the drama of the white family: Broken homes, violence and murder, and lots of drug use. There are times in this movie that even a fairly desensitized individual like myself wanted to jump through the screen and stand up for the innocent (young AND old). A baby is born in this movie with drugs in her system. There’s more pill sniffing than there is in a hip LA nightclub. The last thing you hear Birtie Mae White say is, “I don’t want to sniff no pills.” At times the children are the ones that seem to be in the most control, which is usually the case in families rife with breakdown.
When you’re watching this movie you can’t help but think that it will be Exhibit A in all future prosecutions of the White family. We can go back and forth of whether their activities should be illegal, but their actions are chronicled in a pretty undeniable manner.
Unlike the previous White movies, this one does a superb job delving into the roots of their tragic behavior. D Ray is painted as sort of a folk hero. As a coal miner, D Ray wanted to change the fate of his family by delivering from the virtual slave world of the coal industry. So he became a master at manipulating the Social Security System, getting all of his children “crazy checks,” ie permanent disability payments. D Ray’s SSI magic is just as much a legacy of the White family as the mountain tap dancing.
These checks are the White’s blessing, and curse. It has kept them out of the coal mines, but it has also robbed their lives of a sense of purpose, fed their demons, and given them a sense of entitlement. Would they be better off without them? That’s for you to decide.
The movie also does an excellent job indirectly highlighting the problems facing the whole West Virginia coal region, and the overall downfall of rural American life: how sustenance living has been replaced with dependency and substance abuse. It does so simply by depicting the White family in all it’s rawness, and through interviews with local legal officials who have had to deal with the Whites, and the issues facing West Virginians in their own lives.
And for all this talk of tragedy, it has it’s funny moments, and you shouldn’t be afraid to laugh.
There were a few small things that bothered me about this movie. The soundtrack is amazing. The music is an integral part of it. There are some performances by Hank III and Jesco at Hank Jr.’s cabin that are great. But it takes you on such a roller coaster of emotions: funny, sad, tragic, angry; and they try to use the music to steer you into the mood they want you to be in at the time. Sometimes it’s hard to put the breaks on one emotion so fast and switch to another just because the music is telling you to. Sometimes you need to decide what mood to be in yourself.
I thought this movie was excellent. It “moved” me so to speak. It sucked me in, made me feel emotion, and at the end it took me a while to adjust back to my own reality, another sign of a great film. I was entertained. I learned stuff. It made me feel grateful for the things in my own life. There is wisdom in this film for those that want it. And it is complete. This is THE film on the White family now if you ask me, and the other works should be considered the peripherals.
The Wild & Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is available “On Demand” though some cable and satellite service providers for $6.99, check your listings. It is also available on Amazon for $5.99 by CLICKING HERE. Please note the movie might only be available for a limited time.
Previous articles about this movie and Jesco’s arrest: