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The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia: Appalachian Outlaw Family Documentary Review

You might be familiar with the wild and wonderful Whites of West Virginia via Jesco White of PBS documentary "Dancing Outlaw" fame. Meet the rest of the Boone County Whites in this 2009 documentary executive-produced by Johnny Knoxville.

This 2009 documentary, executive-produced by Johnny Knoxville, tells the story of the White family, a rowdy band of Appalachian outlaws. The clan definitely fits the bill of a wild family, but wonderful -- well, I'll let you be the judge. This hard-drinking bunch is ready to fight at the drop of a hat, does drugs in front of their elderly mom, and even resorts to robbing and shooting their own relatives. So why are they the subjects of a documentary with ties to Johnny Knoxville and Hank Williams III? Why did PBS deem Jesco White worthy of his own documentary called "Dancing Outlaw?"

To some, the Whites represent rebellion and freedom from social constraints. Most of us wish we could swap our jobs for more leisure time, and independence is definitely a good thing. Jesco and D. Ray also worked to preserve mountain culture through their special brand of tap dancing, and the family obviously loves and admires their kind and generous mother, Bertie Mae. But what about the violence and bad parenting?

The documentary attempts to explain the Whites' m.o. by adding some outside opinions from more "respectable" townsfolk from the Whites' hometown of Madison, West Virginia. The film cuts away at various points to interview local attorneys and policemen. Most emphatically point out that the Whites are in no way representative of West Virginia or the citizens of Boone County.

These side interviews serve another purpose, though. When they're not recounting the mind-boggling list of crimes committed by the Whites, some provide a little historical context about the influence of national or global mining companies on Appalachian towns. D. Ray White, the family's late patriarch, grew tired of the mining companies' exploitation of workers.

Companies paid miners in "scripts" that could be used to buy food and other goods in company stores. Scripts were only worth about 30 cents on the dollar, so miners were exploited financially in addition to risking their health and lives in local mines. D. Ray figured that if these corporations could get away with gaming the system, so should he. He signed up every member of his family to receive disability payments from the government, citing insanity.

This bit of historical information puts the Whites' lives into perspective. Taught from a young age to fight injustice with money-making schemes, the Whites grew up feeling entitled. Of course, it's debatable whether their insanity should be called into question. Daughter Mamie also recalls stepping in to defend her drunk dad when he started fights. She considered it unfair to hit a man with a colostomy bag, so she felt obliged to fight anyone who took the bait D. Ray put out.

The Whites' family history is marked by extremely premature deaths, mostly by murder or suicide, addictions to drugs and alcohol, and unstable relationships. Brandon Poe, son of Sue Bob White, is in prison for shooting his uncle. Susan "Kirk" White's baby is taken into state custody immediately after birth. Jesco White, who appears in the Beck video "Loser" and is the subject of the PBS documentary "Dancing Outlaw," songs by Hank Williams III, Big and Rich, and Kentucky Headhunters, has multiple personalities as a result of 10 years of gas huffing. Domestic abuse, numerous murders, and bouts of depression dot the resumes of most of the Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.

Whatever you take away from this documentary, you'll likely find it entertaining in a train wreck sort of way. It's easy to see why Johnny Knoxville was attracted to the project. It's kind of like "Jackass" -- crazy, irresponsible, but fun to watch.

 

Some memorable quotes:

"I took't a butcher knife and put it up to her neck. I said, 'If you want to live to see tomorrow, you better start fryin' them eggs a little better than what you're fryin' em. I'm tired of eatin' slimy, sloppy eggs."

-Jesco White in a clip from the PBS documentary "Dancing Outlaw"

"You know what my daddy used to say? He used to say, 'When you get too old to cut the mustard, lick the jar.' I don't know what he meant by that."

-Bertie Mae White

"I've always been the sexiest one in the family. I've always had comments from thousands of people."

-Sue Bob White

Note: A 2009 UK fictionalized film called "White Lightnin'" is loosely based on the Whites of West Virginia.

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Comments (6)

Sounds like my relatives.

I'm sure family get-togethers are never boring!

Great story! I think we have some neighbors like this.

Thanks! I'm sure you also have plenty of great stories yourself if you have neighbors like the Whites!

Excellent. Voted up

Thanks!

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