The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, directed by Julien Nitzberg and released in 2009, is a documentary that chronicles the Whites of Boone County, West Virginia. Perhaps you’re thinking, why make a documentary about a family nobody has ever heard of? Because as the tagline for the movie says, they are possibly “America’s last outlaw family.”

The film covers the the exploits of the Whites for one year. The patriarch of the family, now dead, was Donald Ray “D. Ray” White, a famous mountain dancer. Five of D. Ray and his wife Bertie’s thirteen children are featured in the documentary – Jesco, Mamie, Bo, Poney and Sue Bob – as well as a a plethora of grandchildren and cousins. As well as interviews with the Whites, local officials are also featured on camera, mostly bemoaning the dreadful influence the family have had on the rest of the community.

The family are notorious in Boone County. They have been involved in numerous violent altercations, arrests for attempted murder and drugs, forgeries, armed robberies, and trading on the black market. They solve problems with their fists or the nearest firearm and they will snort or swallow anything that promises a high. Sometimes the stories they recount and the way they tell them are unintentionally hilarious, such as Kirk White’s explanation as to why she stabbed her ex-boyfriend Dennis: “I am a people person but I hated that motherfucker.” Their contempt for authority is perhaps best illustrated by Terri Lynn White downing jello shots while in the local courthouse.

Although there are many laughs to be had while watching the documentary, there is a darker side. A local attorney says that the Whites are of mountain culture and the main occupation for men like them is mining, a job fraught with hazards where death is a common occurrence. He says that this creates a sense of fatalism and no fear of death. It goes a way to explaining the violent and hedonistic tendencies of most of the White extended family. In addition it becomes apparent that the Whites must have a long legacy of mental illness. Most of them seem to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol (Jessco White has brain damage as a result of ten years of huffing gasoline), two in particular demonstrate what I thought were sociopathic tendencies, many have depression and one even speaks as if suffering from depersonalisation.

Mamie White introduces the family at the beginning and also says the final words. She believes that the White family are going to hell. It gives the viewer a sense of the hopelessness of the family’s existence that even in the afterlife they believe they will be miserable.

Julien Nitzberg has created an entertaining documentary which shows an extreme side of American mountain culture and it’s well worth a watch.

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