“Way down in West Virginia / there are some people who are one of a kind.” – Hank Williams III, “D. Ray White.”
Try to picture a tight-knit family that does hardcore drugs, gleefully breaks the law and tap dances.
Can’t do it? Don’t worry. Such a family already exists.
That family is the Whites, and they’re the subject of the new documentary, “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” The film, which makes its Los Angeles debut on June 26th at Laemmle Sunset 5, follows various members of the outlaw clan over the course of a year, chronicling their larger-than-life ups and downs.
So what makes these Whites so wild? Let’s count the ways – excessive drug use, jaw-droppingly negligent parenting, and near-constant run-ins with the law are only some of the transgressions the family commits over the course of the film’s 90 minutes (not to mention a confession of a stabbing on the side). Add to that the family’s musical claim to fame – deceased patriarch D. Ray White invented Mountain Tap Dancing, a variation on Irish step dancing with tap shoes – and you have people who, true to Hank III’s word, are “one of a kind.”
That uniqueness is the reason the Whites have been the subjects of documentaries and songs for decades now, including Hank III’s “D. Ray White.” “The Whites represent the last of the old Jesse James-style outlaws,” said Julien Nitzberg, director of the film. “They live their life how they want to.”
Nitzberg isn’t a stranger to the White family. He served as producer on “Dancing Outlaw,” the 1991 documentary that chronicled the life of D. Ray White’s son Jesco as he carried on his father’s dancing. The film made Jesco a celebrity, and left Nitzberg itching to chronicle more of the eccentric family. Fast forward 15 years, and a phone call from an unlikely source managed to put Nitzberg back on track for more quality time with the Whites. That source was Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame, a big fan of Jesco’s and of “Dancing Outlaw” who wanted more.
“Knoxville suggested I go back to Boone County to see if there was a story to be told about the rest of the family and the younger generation of Whites,” said Nitzberg.
And there is. Nitzberg captured a particularly interesting year in the life of the Whites, one with births, deaths, drug rehab, prison sentences and more. The family’s behavior is just as unconventional – one early scene finds select family members celebrating their mother Bertie Mae’s birthday by getting high and pants-ing each other, while another finds new mother Kirk White snorting pain pills in her hospital room as her newborn child sleeps 10 feet away.
But while there’s a certain amount of shock value in seeing the Whites get tattoos in their home and discuss the nuances of huffing gasoline, Nitzberg didn’t set out to exploit the family for some Jackass-level debauchery. The director also wanted to examine why the Whites live the way they do. The answer has a lot to do with Boone County itself, which is in the heart of coal country – a place where the threat of death constantly hangs over many miners’ heads. That has led many of the town’s residents to live life in the short-term – and the Whites have simply taken that mindset to the next level. “The Whites don’t fear the law, and they don’t fear death, and that comes from coal culture,” said Nitzberg. “In a way they’re trapped in this outlaw lifestyle that in some ways is super fun but in other ways is super destructive.”
It’s not all outrageous behavior and questionable actions, though. Matriarch Bertie Mae in particular serves as the contrast to her children’s activities. Dubbed “The Miracle Woman,” Bertie Mae allegedly raised over 34 kids who’d been abandoned or who’d lost their mothers or fathers – in addition to the 18 kids she birthed with D. Ray. In the film, Bertie Mae is frail but in good spirits as her family celebrates her birthday. “There’s never another mother in the world who could fill my mother’s shoes,” says daughter Mamie White.
Whatever the reason behind their eccentric behavior, there’s something both the filmmakers and the Whites agree on – music. “The Wild And Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” has an astounding number of songs – 43 to be exact. Included in that are three in-film performances from Hank III, who, in a surreal scene, plays “Straight To Hell” while Jesco tap-dances on a picnic table at Hank Williams, Jr.’s cabin in Tennessee. (Later in the film, Jesco dances on a patio painted with the Confederate flag while Hank III plays “D. Ray White.”) When the filmmakers couldn’t afford a song of their choosing (examples include tunes by Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis), they had rockabilly legend Deke Dickerson write a song in a similar style for the scene in question.
In the end, “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” is more a family portrait than social commentary, and the Whites are by no means an easy family to portray. Nitzberg hopes the film will give people a better sense of the “rebels of the south,” and show they’re not just the degenerates they’ve been depicted as in the press.
“I want viewers to walk out of the theater with complicated feelings, to understand who this family is, their beauty, their sadness, their tragedy, their comic moments, and the full depth of their lives,” he said. “They’re a fascinating and complex family.”
“The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” screenings are the following:
6/25 – Laemmle Sunset 5 – 10:00 PM *
6/26 – Laemmle Sunset 5 – 10:00 PM *
6/27 – Laemmle Sunset 5 – 10:00 PM
6/28 – Laemmle Sunset 5 – 10:00 PM
6/29 – Laemmle Sunset 5 – 10:00 PM
6/30 – Laemmle Sunset 5 – 10:00 PM
7/1 – Laemmle Sunset 5 – 10:00 PM
7/2 – LA Downtown Independent – 6:00 PM, 7:45 PM, 9:30 PM, 11:15 PM *
7/3 – LA Downtown Independent – 4:15 PM, 6:00 PM, 7:45 PM, 9:30 PM, 11:15 PM *
7/4 – LA Downtown Independent – 4:15 PM, 6:00 PM, 7:45 PM, 9:30 PM, 11:15 PM
7/5 – LA Downtown Independent – 7:30 PM
7/6 – LA Downtown Independent – 10:15 PM
7/7 – LA Downtown Independent – 7:45 PM, 9:30 PM, 11:15 PM
* Shows on these dates will include a Q&A with director Julien Nitzberg
One final note: During the film’s run at LA Downtown Independent, people get into the showings for FREE if they:
1. Are wearing tap shoes
2. Have a West Virginia Driver’s License
3. Have a felony Conviction
4. Have a visible bullet wound
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